Saturday, August 15, 2009

Pakistan Still Hates America and What That Teaches Us

By Barry Rubin

The August 13 Pew poll in Pakistan shows just how much effect the popularity of President Barack Obama has on this critical country. Since he became president positive attitudes toward the United States as caring about Pakistan have gone up! Yes, they are up from 21 percent in 2007 to 22 percent today. That’s 1 percentage point. So, in effect, there’s been no effect.

But this is really far worse than even that statistic would make it appear. First, it shows that Obama’s leaning over double-backwards, as in his Cairo speech, has had no impact whatsoever. If he hasn’t changed anything yet, he’s unlikely to do so in future.

Second, Pakistan has been the recipient of incredible financial generosity from the Obama administration. And third, it is an absolutely pivotal country in his strategy, which emphasizes the war in Afghanistan.

There’s even a fourth factor which is that the country has suffered more from one of the few groups which the Obama administration still says is at war with America, the Taliban. High-ranking administration officials have stated that there are also moderate Taliban. So they don’t hope to defeat that group--despite the fact that it was al-Qaida's protector and helped make the September 11 attacks happen--but to split it.

It’s true, as the poll shows, that the negative view of the Taliban held by Pakistanis has climbed steeply from 33 percent in 2008 to 70 percent today. That’s quite dramatic. Indeed, 69 percent of Pakistanis fear that “extremists” could seize power.

But which ones? The Taliban is an Afghan group, after all, and whatever the Pakistan security forces have done to foster it over the years—a lot—it has invaded Pakistan. It is an alien invader. Pakistan, however, has lots of home-grown extremist groups which are more popular and stronger.

Here's the most devastating finding of all: 64 percent of Pakistanis regard the United States as an enemy. Just 9 percent say it’s a friend.

Why is this? Well, America is not Muslim, is culturally different, and they are being taught for decades--by clerics and others if not by their political rulers--that America is bad. That also goes for the years when George W. Bush wasn't president!

In part, for the United States it also goes with the territory, so to speak. Since to do something in Afghanistan and to block the Taliban and to stabilize Pakistan and just to "do things" for Pakistan so that Pakistanis will supposedly like America the Obama Administration has to...back the country's rulers. And that is going to make Pakistanis who don't like their own leaders also not like America and its policies, right? Who said it's easy to be a great power, problems which don't go away when U.S. leaders try to renounce being a great power.

Who else is an enemy for Pakistanis? It isn’t surprising that India is high on the list (69 percent) but what is worth noticing how much higher it is than the Taliban (57 percent) or al-Qaida (41 percent), groups engaged in killing Pakistanis.

And it also isn’t surprising that the United States is perceived to favor India over Pakistan, but again the margin is amazingly large despite the fact that the Obama administration and many of its predecessors have really done more for Pakistan than India. The actual numbers are shocking: 54 percent see America as pro-India; only 4 percent as pro-Pakistan.

Finally, there are some important clues about these gaps in Pakistani religious attitudes toward social and political issues: 78 percent believe that anyone who converts to another religion from Islam should be killed, 80 percent that thieves should have their hands amputated, 83 percent that adulterers should be stoned.

So we aren't talking about a small percentage of extremists who hijacked Islam (Bush's phrase) or don't represent the true Islam (Obama's phrase) but rather about the interpretation of Islam that is mainstream among these people.

As interesting as these figures are, the interpretation is even more significant, not only for U.S. policy toward South Asia but for understanding where Western perceptions of the world have gone wrong.

Here it is in a single sentence: The problems are not just ones of misunderstanding and of Western aggression or mistakes. Thinking that George W. Bush was a meanie and Barack H. Obama is charming and empathetic only gets you so far, and not far at all.

Conflicts are based on real collisions of interest, deeply differing ways of thinking about the world, widely distinct societies and histories. They are not easily bridged and perhaps cannot be bridged at all.

The United States could stand on its head, dole out billions of dollars, talk until its green in the face about how much it respects Islam, and it won’t make much of a difference. And then, it is clear that the United States requires all the traditional implements of diplomacy: power, force, deterrence, credibility, steadfastness, as well as support from reliable allies--that is, allies who actually really help and don't just say how much they like Obama--to deal with problems.

Amidst all the babble about countries and peoples possessing their own perceptions of the world in a “multicultural” globe glorified by differences, it is forgotten that there is a rather serious price to pay for all that, which includes conflict, war, hatred, persecution, and powerful forces maintaining social stagnation and economic failure.

Ultimately, it is not America or globalization, not India or Israel, or George Bush who is responsible for the dislike emanating from places like Pakistan; and the material enmity coming from places like Pakistan; and the instability, terror attacks, or suffering arising within places like Pakistan. No, it is what people think, do, and how the society works, and what the goals are in places like Pakistan.

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