Thursday, September 25, 2008

Zardari:Is this charming?

President Asif Ali Zardari is not new to meeting public figures, he lived in the shadow of the Late Benazir Bhutto for long, and indeed he is not new to meeting western women. Thus I see his opening remarks on meeting Sarah Palin a feeble attempt to be charming. Well initially! Complimenting her on looking 'more gorgeous in person' is perhaps right from the book 'The Game' but still acceptable to woo a woman who could be a heartbeat away from the White House one day. But then when asked by the cameramen to shake hands again his comment, 'if they keep insisting I might hug you' was lame, uncalled for and frankly totally out of order for the President of a country. I am a very liberal man, perhaps more than most Western men, but then wearing the mantle of a Presidency asks for people to bring some dignity to the position you hold.

I can see that Mr. Zardari sees himself as the champion of the fight against terrorism and this is where he and Sarah Palin might have alot of rhetoric to share. However, my former school mate, Asif I mean, has to understand that the problem of violence in Pakistan is a mixture of Taliban, Al Qadea and the lack of respect for the tribal system. I belong to that tribal system and I know a fair amount of how people of the Khyber Agency see things.

I am often then asked how to deal with this problem in the North of Pakistan? My solutions may not be complete but they will be certainly better than what is on offer at the moment. In the first place I would take a page from the book the British wrote about respecting the tribal system and working WITH it to control trouble. This would mean strengthening the Jirga (tribal councils) system and putting money into the tribal chiefs hands with the following deal; we will support your system if you have no taliban and no al Qadea in your region. If we know they are there then we will stop supporting you. The Pakhtun system is based on honor and respect and with the Pakistan and the US armed forces making incursions into tribal regions the traditional chiefs have lost face, power and respect in their own tribes. Yet they form the basis on which the society is knit together.

Yes the task is more difficult given that the Al Qadea and perhaps the Taliban have used money and religion to consolidate themselves in the tribal system, yet they have not got enough control over the populous of tribes who need to build their respect and trust into the tribal chiefs. While this will not solve the problems immediately but it will release the army from fighting the tribal people and deploy to protect more of the border.

However, all this may be too much for a new President to appreciate and understand for the moment, but then being in the job one either learns or just stumbles. What ever was discussed later between Palin and Zardari I cannot see it being highly enligthening considering her view is right wing hawkish and Zardari's view seems to be 'formative and lost'. I hope for the sake of Pakistan that the learning process of being diplomatic and charming is not all what we see from a President. We would want to see wisdom and leadership, not high school attempts at charm. The interesting thing is that what I would remember of Asif is that he can rise to the occasion, meeting Palin was certainly not one of them.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Sarah Palin: A view from abroad

When an unknown person pops up on the political stage, especially one that figures the center stage of the US Presidential election, we can either applaud the stroke of genius or wonder what the hell happened here. In the case of Sarah Palin, the emotions from the outside are neither, they are more like a total disbelief that a person who has governed a state where there are more elk then people and who prides herself to have 'pitbull' fighting instincts can be placed a heartbeat away from the most powerful person on Earth.

Thanks to the internet, the media and ofcourse seeing her in her first interview I have wondered to myself, do I want a woman who has not political sense of the world, (i.e. Bush Doctrine question drew a blank), has never met another head of state, and really doesn't have clue where perhaps the continents are to be the Vice President of a country that has made it its business to be in every backyard of the world; simply no way. Sarah Palin and the impending 'statetrooper-gate' matter clearly shows this woman carries her grudges, rewards her friends (five appointees who were school friends and takes her fights public. What seems dangerous is that she has enough people who will cover for her, take the fall for her, and judging by her body language and speech, this is one nasty woman in the neighborhood.

Now how would Sarah 'pitbull' Palin perform on the world scene? First of all she may be ignorant of the Bush Doctrine but she is cast too much in his mould. and therefore will have a propensity to continue to use force as a means of international policy. Second, since she seems to pride herself as someone who doesn't give up an argument it is more likely that her interface with world leaders will not be entirely pleasant. It is one thing to be intelligent and argumentative, but given she seems almost in grade one of international politics being argumentative may not be the wisest thing to do.

It would seem that the Palin factor will appeal to the hawks in the Republican party, but whether the Hillary supporters will shift from the Democrats to support a mediocre political lightweight remains to be seen. There is so far little substance to the striking looks of a woman who could perhaps be the most manipulative figure in US political history. I also suspect more will be revealed of the woman who pretty much sees herself as the lone sheriff in the old West town. The scary part is she will shoot before she looks, and that is where the problem is. Someone once said 'never put your mouth into motion before your brain is in gear'. It would seem that might be a word of advice for Sarah Palin.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Asif Zardari: President?

I went to school with Mr. Asif Zardari, at Cadet College Petaro, and last saw him briefly in Abu Dhabi when he made his first trip there as the spouse of the newly elected Prime Minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto. The brief visit was at the Intercontinental Hotel in suite and it was awkward since he had just assumed an importance that he bubbled with and I was looking at someone who we never did take very seriously as classmates. That he had political ambitions was obvious as he dabbled in college politics even briefly being part of a take over of the college in 1971 when General Yahya's government collapsed and some cadets thought a military college deserved some egalitarian politics. I recall walking in to the office if the Principal and demanding the ring leader and his friends hand back the college, amongst the ringleaders was Asif too, but once the leader had been subdued Asif understood it was not to be.

We remained friends and I would say one thing over the years I admired that he looked after his friends, especially those who were 'loyal' to him, and this was in keeping with the politics of Pakistan. His wife, the charming Benazir remained more in contact as I had been in UAE and so was she in and out of the place. We met a few times, talked politics even exchanged a few opinions about her trials and tribulations. I always thought of her as very intelligent and charming and indeed engaging, however to this day I have wondered if she sincerely did improve the lot of the people of Pakistan or whether she tried but was working in a system where things are hard to change. Yet her myopia was interesting when she visited me the last time at my home in Abu Dhabi, this was years back, we did argue when she refused to admit that her ministers or party members have been corrupt. It was perhaps a sore point with her, but I would concede on balance she seemed to have had a better hope for Pakistan then others at that point in time.

Her death was indeed a loss and I did, or tried to do my duty of phoning in a condolence two weeks after the funeral. I never got to speak to Asif, and one of our common friends actually had the cheek to suggest that now 'Asif's political career is rising I am not surprised you are remembering him'. But then that is how Pakistan has become one contacts politicians because one wants something. For me the welfare of the country is all I want. Which brings one to the what Mr. Zaradari will do as President.

While I do not know him given he decades since we studied together, I am constrained to see his profile from the media. My guess he will get carried away, forgetting the role of the President and in a sense he may at some stage forget the Army does have a say in matters. He will wheel and deal his way through alot, and in many cases get away with it, but the biggest legacy he will have to face will that of whether he can rise about the corruption, or the temptation of it, whether he can be bipartisan, whether he can do what is good for Pakistan rather than what is good for him, or only his political party or indeed external powers.

I want Asif to succeed, not for his own good, but for the good of the country, and if in that process he gets a measure of success rubbed off on him great for him. However, the reality is that he seems to have wheeled himself into a position where the political process has little faith him, he has broken his word a few times already and most of all will he now restore the judges? In effect this is not a test of Asif Zardari, its a test for the system.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

McCain-Palin: wool over the eyes

If I was only listening to the words from both Sen McCain and Gov Palin talking about Washington and how they will change Washington I would have sworn these were Democrats talking of changing eight years of Washington politics. Actually this is the biggest wool over the eyes attempt by the McCain-Palin camp to pretend that they are part of the people who will change eight years of mismanagement in Washington. It is almost as of McCain is trying to disown the Bush years, and in this way by putting aside the legacy he and Palin are running the risk of being in the mid stream of Republican politics and shedding them to be party less. Lets face it the McCain economic plan is exactly the same as that of the Bush years, so the current pain that is hurting American people is the same economic policies that McCain has embraced.

Gov Sarah Palin is ofcourse a surprise and while initially the gambit has paid off and the 'Palin who?' response was fed with her unique style of speech the reality is that she didn't say a word about universal medical care, education or the economy, actually showing how weak she is on these issues. The reality remains that the likes of McCain-Palin have never had the poor on the agenda and now try to review their mandate with rhetorical speeches; weak on substance, and emotional triggers. At the end of the day McCain played his prisoner of war (we are talking of the one over 35 years ago) card and Palin played her 'hockey mom' card when in reality none of her kids play hockey. Once the euphoria of all this dies we will find that Palin will actually be a liability even though she is being portrayed as an ideological heiress to the George W Bush without the liability of having been associated with him. The issue remains that she does not have the experience for the job and her handlers know (all politicians have handlers who tell them what to do) that there is just so much mileage you can get from stage craft.

If the American people buy this drama then indeed they have the wool pulled all the way over their face, perhaps down to their knees.

End American Alienation

The Current Discussion: In their campaign, should Barack Obama and running mate Joseph Biden advocate a clean break in U.S. foreign policy, or should they rely on continuity and experience?

The past eight years of U.S. foreign policy have been perhaps the worst ever for the image of the United States. I am not supporter of either Democrats or Republicans, especially when it comes to foreign policy. The U.S. policy towards other nations has been one of dictation, coercion and feeding off the fear that is being bred within the U.S. domestic policy. The war on terrorism has been made such a priority that upon its pretext two countries were invaded resulting in more than 5,000 U.S. deaths alone (many more than the 2,800 who lost their lives in the 9/11 attacks.) After seven years, the man they seek is still at large, Iraq is a mess and unfortunately the U.S. image in almost every country is at rock bottom. It has become such a farce that the U.S. policy makers (and indeed the fellows in Homeland Security, too) do not know friend from foe, and a criticism of U.S. policy has been equated with being an enemy of the U.S. There must be a departure from this policy of alienation that the present U.S. administration has engaged upon.

So what should Obama-Biden do on foreign policy? First deal with the world fairly, and fairly means ALL parties are treated fairly. Bring the Palestinian question to the forefront, open a sincere dialogue with Iran, disengage in an honorable way from Iraq and Afghanistan, and most of all stop propping up governments that are unpopular (Musharraf is gone, though I suspect now 'General' Zardari will be the vanguard against terrorism in Pakistan.) Let the world see that actually most Americans are actually great people. The U.S. is the only true superpower left, which brings a responsibility to show leadership in world affairs, not hegemony. All these things that have to be done to fix things will be difficult, but they have to be done to make the world a better and safer place.

What will the hawks say about terrorism? Terrorism is a threat that has been made bigger than life; more people died in road accidents in the U.S. than by any other violent acts (42,815 in 2002, of which 4078 alone died on the roads in California, according to Fatality Accident Reporting System and the IRTAD.) Does this mean we wage a war on automobiles? More than 35,000 people each year are killed in the U.S. by guns and another 65,000 are injured, and yet there is no noise about this being an epidemic. But the war on terrorism has been pushed into such a major problem that the broader picture has been ignored.

The U.S. has to lead and it has to assume a responsibility to lead with fairness, a problem-solving attitude and statesmanship that has been frankly absent on the world scene. It is time to bring this all together; it's time for Obama and Biden to step up and do it. There cannot be another way forward because confrontation has never solved issues. While this may sound too aggressive, all I can say is that we have seen a major failure of U.S. foreign policy and it is now time to fix it.