That no good deed goes unpunished is both cliche and irony. No better illustration can be found than in the uproar that accompanied the House of Representative’s passage last week of the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill that “authorizes” an additional $1.5 billion a year for five years in non-military aid to Pakistan. “Authorize” is a key word.
Given the arcane and antique system in Congress for appropriating funds, i.e. writing actual checks, money has only been promised. Another appropriations vote in both houses is needed before the money can be sent to Pakistan.
Despite the best of American intentions, reaction in Pakistan was predictable. Outrage over the relatively small amount of aid when compared with the exorbitant spending on Iraq and Afghanistan provoked Pakistani headlines of “insulting.” So-called conditions on how the money would be spent were declared “offensive” to Pakistan sovereignty. And in a conspiracy-based society, the aid package, along with plans to enlarge the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad including the stationing of reportedly a thousand more Marine security guards, led to absurd rumors that Washington was planning to take over the government in order to secure Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.
Later in the week Pakistani media reported that President Asif Zardari was about to fire Army Chief of Staff General Ashfaq Kayani because of military opposition to Kerry-Lugar on the grounds of imposing conditions including regulating promotions. All of this was sheer nonsense. And, despite the efforts by the able American ambassador in Islamabad, Anne Patterson, and Sen. John Kerry’s powerful list of myths and realities about the bill to set the record right, an unfortunate and unnecessary firestorm was unleashed that swept and was intensified in both countries as reaction there generated an overreaction here and vice versa.
Then, over the weekend after a suicide bombing in northwest Pakistan killed at least 53 civilians, Army General Headquarters in Rawalpindi was attacked by insurgents. That attack and the truck bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul earlier in the week are deadly reminders of the dangers that the Pakistani leadership rightly regard as existential. What is also interesting is that three weeks ago, when the Senate purposely passed Kerry-Lugar to coincide with the Democratic Friends of Pakistan meeting in New York that included Presidents Obama, Zardari and 20 other heads of state, not a peep was heard in protest. Clearly, the House action afforded enemies of the Pakistani government and opponents of the United States the opportunity to exploit what was clearly intended as an American good deed, warts and all, to demonstrate support.
Pakistani outrage, feigned or real, will pass. But for some Americans and members of Congress, that opposition and protest will spark a strong reaction, largely negative. The question is what can be done to ensure that a better and fuller exchange of views flows between both capitals and both peoples.
For the moment, the Obama administration has higher priorities, although not necessarily more important issues on its agenda than Pakistan. Decisions on Afghanistan and whether to alter the strategy and add or reduce troops must be made. Meanwhile, Congress is debating healthcare reform, on which many believe the political credibility of the administration will rest, Nobel Peace prize notwithstanding. And rising unemployment and other discouraging economic indicators also compete for attention.
But once the decision is made on Afghanistan, Obama must turn to Pakistan. Strikingly, the U.S. government, whether during George W. Bush’s tenure or the current administration, has not been good in seeking genuine strategic dialogue and input from friends and allies abroad before making major national security decisions. And in the relatively short meetings Obama has had with Zardari, no real strategic views were exchanged about what both countries were prepared to do in facing this existential threat in the form of the insurgency, terrorism and jihad extremism.
During World War II, the allies met with extraordinary frequency to determine and refine the strategy to defeat Nazi Germany and fascist Japan. The Roosevelt-Churchill meetings and communications, later joined by Stalin, are textbook cases of how leaders of an alliance made common cause. In that process, the combined military chiefs of staff met hundreds of times as well.
This sort of strategic interaction has been largely lost. In deciding to invade Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States did not really seek the views of its allies. The term “consultation” came to mean telling our allies what we decided after the fact. That arrangement no longer works.
Obama and Zardari need to meet at least once as Roosevelt and Churchill did. From there, a real strategy can be fashioned that brings security and stability to a vitally important region. That good deed, when accomplished, surely will go unpunished.
Harlan Ullman is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Advisors Group and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the National Defense University. This essay was previously published as “No good deed” in UPI.