James Carroll

Is Pakistan next in line?

By James Carroll
February 28, 2011

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THE REVOLUTIONS in the Arab streets, whatever their individual outcomes, have already overturned the dominant assumption of global geopolitics — that hundreds of millions of impoverished people will uncomplainingly accept their assignment to the antechamber of hell. The United States, meanwhile, has been faced with the radical obsolescence of its Cold War-rooted preference of strong-man “stability’’ over basic principles of justice. In 1979, with Iran’s popular overthrow of the shah, America was given a chance to re-examine its regional assumptions, but the Carter Doctrine militarized them by threatening war for the sake of oil. In 1989, when people power dismantled the Soviet empire, Washington declared its own empire, and replaced the Communist devil with an Islamic one. But what if the devil has a point?

The Obama administration’s initial ambivalence toward the popular Arab uprisings resulted less from uncertain political instincts than from the iron grip of a half-century old paradigm, the core principle of which, in the Mideast, is that oil matters more than human life. That paradigm is broken now, and Washington is chastened by the clear manifestation that its policies have been self-serving, callous, and even immoral. It is impossible to behold such developments without asking: What next? And to ask that question is to follow an automatic shift of the gaze toward Pakistan.

The United States has been preoccupied, as ever, more with the power elite of Pakistan than with the plight of its people, which makes it as wrong in its strategy toward that pivotal nation as toward the others. For the usual reasons of realpolitik, Washington has cozied up to one Pakistani dictator after another; ignored their corruptions; downplayed their mortal complicity in the most dangerous nuclear proliferation on the planet; turned a half-blind eye to the Pakistani military’s double game in Afghanistan. All the while, the same pressures that have blown the tops off half a dozen Arab states have been building there, too.

Pakistan is a country of 170 million people, 60 percent of whom live on less than $2 a day. Nearly that many are illiterate. In the last three years, unemployment has almost tripled to 14 percent, with the same increases in the cost of basic necessities that sparked unrest elsewhere. But Pakistan has also been staggered by last summer’s floods, which directly affected more than 20 million, and so devastated the nation’s agricultural infrastructure that by autumn the World Food Program was warning that 70 percent of the population lacked adequate access to nutrition. As if these “normal’’ pressures of natural disaster and economic inequity are not destabilizing enough, a massive Islamist insurgency, building on the primacy of tribal loyalties, increasingly threatens the Islamabad government. Early this month, as protests mounted to his west, the Pakistani prime minister made the by-then mandatory show of reform by dissolving his cabinet.

But the context for all of this in Pakistan is unique, for the more insecure Islamabad has felt, the more it has embraced the American-spawned fantasy of nuclear weapons as a source of all-trumping transcendent power. Since President Obama gave his historic speech in Prague two years ago, declaring a world purpose of nuclear elimination, Pakistan has been adding to its nuclear arsenal at a feverish clip, growing it from about 70 weapons to perhaps more than 100. The stated rationale for this is the threat from India, which is engaged in its own escalations, with highly touted military support from the United States — including a recent offer of dozens of prized F-35 stealth fighters. Nothing better demonstrates the stuck-in-amber obsolescence of US policy than this self-defeating — and profit-driven — fueling of the South Asia arms race. A balance of terror is no balance. So last week, Pakistan test-fired its nuclear-capable Babur cruise missile — a bow shot as much at Washington as at New Delhi.

And speaking of last week, what were those frenzied crowds in Pakistani streets calling for if not the lynching of Raymond Davis, the CIA operative who faces a murder trial in Lahore for his January killing of two Pakistanis? That Davis is tied to havoc-wreaking CIA drone strikes is enough to enrage a population, shackling his nation, once again, to the wrong side of history.

James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.