What Happened with Kerry-Lugar

By David Ignatius

It’s a classic example of the law of unintended consequences: Congress triples its assistance to Pakistan as part of a deepening strategic relationship. But members of Congress, always eager to tell other countries what to do, insert conditions that Pakistanis find insulting. As a result, rather than welcoming American aid and friendship, Pakistanis are indignant at U.S. meddling.

When I was in Islamabad a week ago, the Pakistani press was dripping with anti-American outrage. And last week, the Pakistani military and parliament were both protesting U.S. interference. All this in response to legislation that was meant to symbolize U.S. support for Islamabad’s growing firmness in fighting al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Strangely, this uproar seems to have taken the Obama administration by surprise, with senior officials initially denouncing as inaccurate a Tuesday New York Times story that reported Pakistani anger and opposition to the bill. Richard Holbrooke, the administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, should have seen this one coming.

The trigger for this latest flap with Islamabad is something known as the Kerry-Lugar bill, named for its Senate co-sponsors, John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.). It should more properly be known as the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill, since the language that has peeved the Pakistanis mostly came from the House Foreign Affairs Committee, chaired by Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.).

Some of the popular anger in Islamabad is being manipulated by the Pakistani military, which should know better than to toss a match in the dry tinder of the U.S.-Pakistani relationship. And some of it, frankly, is a sign of Pakistani political immaturity. But the larger point is that this hiccup in the relationship is unnecessary. It’s a product of gratuitous language that was written into the legislation despite warnings that it would trigger just this sort of reaction.

The finger-wagging conditions in the bill illustrate a special form of American hubris. U.S. politicians become so accustomed to lecturing others that they lose sight of how their words will be read in foreign capitals and how legislative boilerplate will play on foreign insecurities and anxieties. That’s the foreigners’ problem, you might say. But when a few gratuitous phrases can destabilize relations with our most important ally against al-Qaeda, then it’s our problem, too.

It’s useful to trace how this imbroglio developed, for it is largely a self-inflicted wound. In 2008, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee began drafting a bill that was aimed at increasing non-military assistance and, in the process, encouraging Pakistan’s fledgling civilian government. The heart of the bill was a big increase in civilian aid, from the $400 million range to $1.5 billion annually for five years. That bill finally cleared the Senate and House last month.

The Senate version included modest conditions on U.S. military aid to Pakistan, requiring that before money was delivered the secretary of state must certify that Pakistan’s security forces were not “materially interfering” in politics and were making “concerted efforts” to curb the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the Lashkar-i-Taiba group believed responsible for the Mumbai terrorist attack. That didn’t prompt any backlash in Pakistan.

The conditions in the House bill were much harsher, and the final bill passed by Congress had the tone of a diktat. Kerry tried to soften the House language, but sharp words remained: Pakistan wouldn’t get military aid unless it “demonstrated a sustained commitment” against terrorism by showing it was “ceasing support” to terrorist groups and “dismantling terrorist bases” in Quetta and Muridke (where Lashkar-i-Taiba operates).

Although Pakistan’s intelligence service has had past contacts with these groups, this public congressional scolding was guaranteed to upset Pakistani military and intelligence officers. They argue that their soldiers are dying in the fight against the Taliban and other extremist groups, and they don’t need hectoring from Congress. Pakistan’s fight against the Taliban was vividly evident in Saturday’s terrorist assault on the military’s headquarters in Rawalpindi.

The Pakistani side is hardly blameless. The military may be peeved that the bill leans toward a civilian government it doesn’t fully trust. It’s possible, too, that Pakistani intelligence chiefs still are playing a double game with the terrorists. But that’s hard to square with their actions in recent months — their successful assault on the Taliban in the Swat Valley and their planned offensive in Waziristan.

The only benefit I can see here is a perverse one: It may actually be easier for the Pakistani military to battle the Taliban and al-Qaeda if it’s seen by the public as standing up defiantly to American pressure. There’s no better cover for a pro-American policy, after all, than bashing Uncle Sam.


Washington Post

Washington Post

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One response to “What Happened with Kerry-Lugar

  1. PMA

    At the 2009 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, David Ignatius moderated a discussion including Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Israeli President Shimon Peres, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa. With the December ’08-January ’09 conflict in Gaza still fresh in memory, the tone of the discussion was lively. Peres was the only participant who was explicitly defending the Israeli role in the Gaza conflict, so David Ignatius gave the Israeli President the final 25 minutes to speak. Erdoğan objected to Peres’ tone and risen voice during the Israeli President’s impassioned defense of his nation’s actions. David Ignatius gave Erdoğan a minute to respond, and when Erdoğan went over his allocated minute David Ignatius repeatedly cut the Turkish Prime Minister off, telling him and the audience that they were out of time and that they had to get to a dinner. Erdoğan seemed visibly frustrated as he said to the President of Israel, “When it comes to killing, you know well how to kill.” David Ignatius put his arm on Erdoğan’s shoulder and kept saying that his time was up. Erdoğan then gathered his papers and said, “I do not think I will be coming back to Davos after this because you do not let me speak.” Erdoğan then got out of his chair and walked off the stage, while the other discussion panelists were still seated but Amr Moussa stood up to shake his hand as he left. At that point the discussion ended.

    Five minutes after the discussion ended, Peres called Erdoğan to apologize for any misunderstanding. Erdoğan later told reporters that he was not upset with Peres, rather he was upset with David Ignatius for failing to moderate the discussion impartially, by giving Peres 25 minutes to speak while earlier only giving Erdoğan 12 minutes and then just another minute to respond to Peres. Erdoğan returned to Istanbul a day later to an hero’s welcome at the airport.

    Writing about the incident, David Ignatius said that he found himself “in the middle of a fight where there was no longer a middle.” Because the Israel-Palestinian conflict provokes such heated emotions on both sides of the debate, David Ignatius concluded, it was impossible for anyone to be seen as an impartial mediator. David Ignatius wrote that his experience elucidated a larger truth about failure of the United States’ attempt to serve as an impartial mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “American leaders must give up the notion that they can transform the Middle East and its culture through military force,” David Ignatius wrote, and instead “get out of the elusive middle, step across the threshold of anger, and sit down and talk” with the Middle Eastern leaders.