Pakistan: What next?

Good sense - and even some hope - at last night's Intelligence 2 debate

A distinguished panel, including the chief of the general staff, General Sir David Richards, the cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, Professor Anatole Lieven, US political analyst Jonathan Paris, Chatham House's Farzana Shaikh, the NS South Asia correspondent William Dalrymple and India's former Foreign minister, Jaswant Singh, discussed this question at Cadogan Hall in Chelsea last night.

Despite media reports such as the one last year that labelled Pakistan "the world's most dangerous country", the tone was pragmatically, if cautiously upbeat.

Imran Khan made a passionate plea for observers to understand that "the real enemy" was and is al-Qaeda, and not the Pakistani Taliban. The latter may be religious fundamentalists, he said, but "no Pushtun has ever been involved in acts of international terrorism. The streets of Britain are not going to be made safe by targeting the Taliban. You must separate the real ideologues from our own tribal people."

Khan and Lieven both pointed out that it is Western policies and action -- such as what Khan called the "insanity and immorality" of using unmanned drone aircraft to carry out attacks in the border areas, causing, as he rightly said, "so-called collateral damage" (oh, bitter euphemism) -- that are driving radicalisation.

There was a consensus that far from being a force that could push Pakistan to become a "failed state", the country's Taliban could ultimately be a key diplomatic player in the region; that left to its own devices, the Pakistani government could negotiate with them, and through them with the Afghan Taliban. Overall, General Richards said, "Pakistan could hold the key to stability, not just in the region but across the Muslim world."

Leaving aside that larger claim for the moment, the most impressive speaker was Jaswant Singh, whose words carried the dignity of age and the courage of a politician unafraid to defy his party - he was expelled from the Hindu nationalist BJP last year for writing a book deemed too favourable to Pakistan's founding leader, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. "India, Pakistan and Bangladesh were born of the same womb," he said, "but it was not a natural birth - it was a Caesarian section."

He too regarded Pakistani security not just as a matter for that country alone but for the region. William Dalrymple quipped that Pakistan was "the only American ally that the US regularly bombs" -- a good line, but it was Singh's gentle, rueful, chiding that struck home. Sixty years after the birth of these nations, he said, in a tone of mild wonder, "we are still subject to the whims and fancies of the West."

If democracy is part of "what's next" for Pakistan, there was very little mention of it. Dalrymple did point out that the country's religious parties have never received more than a tiny percentage of the vote, so there was no need to fear them taking over and turning the country into a theocratic state.

But I thought then of two other Muslim democracies, Malaysia and Indonesia. Both have histories of relatively fair elections (obviously more recently in Indonesia's case, although elections of sorts did take place under Suharto), and in neither do religious parties have any chance of winning overall majorities - but they don't have to. Their very presence has an effect on the moderate mainstream, where parties constantly feel the need to burnish their Islamic credentials so as not to be outflanked by those who wish to see no divide between religion and politics.

Not one of those countries' founding fathers - Jinnah in Pakistan, Tunku Abdul Rahman in Malaysia and Sukarno in Indonesia - would be acceptable as leaders in their states today. They would be seen as far too liberal and secular, and in the case of Jinnah and the Tunku, disgracefully fond of whisky as well.

Maybe yearning after some return to the more plural, tolerant polity Jinnah seemed to envision is unrealistic. A stable, peaceful Pakistan which other countries do not try to use as a pawn to further their own geo-political ambitions is a big enough wish in itself -- but one which last night's panel seemed to suggest we may dare hope for.

 

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Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Donald Trump ushers in a new era of kakistocracy: government by the worst people

Trump will lead the whitest, most male cabinet in memory – a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

“What fills me with doubt and dismay is the degradation of the moral tone,” wrote the American poet James Russell Lowell in 1876, in a letter to his fellow poet Joel Benton. “Is it or is it not a result of democracy? Is ours a ‘government of the people by the people for the people’, or a kakistocracy rather, for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools?”

Is there a better, more apt description of the incoming Trump administration than “kakistocracy”, which translates from the Greek literally as government by the worst people? The new US president, as Barack Obama remarked on the campaign trail, is “uniquely unqualified” to be commander-in-chief. There is no historical analogy for a President Trump. He combines in a single person some of the worst qualities of some of the worst US presidents: the Donald makes Nixon look honest, Clinton look chaste, Bush look smart.

Trump began his tenure as president-elect in November by agreeing to pay out $25m to settle fraud claims brought against the now defunct Trump University by dozens of former students; he began the new year being deposed as part of his lawsuit against a celebrity chef. On 10 January, the Federal Election Commission sent the Trump campaign a 250-page letter outlining a series of potentially illegal campaign contributions. A day later, the head of the non-partisan US Office of Government Ethics slammed Trump’s plan to step back from running his businesses as “meaningless from a conflict-of-interest perspective”.

It cannot be repeated often enough: none of this is normal. There is no precedent for such behaviour, and while kakistocracy may be a term unfamiliar to most of us, this is what it looks like. Forget 1876: be prepared for four years of epic misgovernance and brazen corruption. Despite claiming in his convention speech, “I alone can fix it,” the former reality TV star won’t be governing on his own. He will be in charge of the richest, whitest, most male cabinet in living memory; a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

There has been much discussion about the lack of experience of many of Trump’s appointees (think of the incoming secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who has no background in diplomacy or foreign affairs) and their alleged bigotry (the Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, denied a role as a federal judge in the 1980s following claims of racial discrimination, is on course to be confirmed as attorney general). Yet what should equally worry the average American is that Trump has picked people who, in the words of the historian Meg Jacobs, “are downright hostile to the mission of the agency they are appointed to run”. With their new Republican president’s blessing, they want to roll back support for the poorest, most vulnerable members of society and don’t give a damn how much damage they do in the process.

Take Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general selected to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Pruitt describes himself on his LinkedIn page as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda” and has claimed that the debate over climate change is “far from settled”.

The former neurosurgeon Ben Carson is Trump’s pick for housing and urban development, a department with a $49bn budget that helps low-income families own homes and pay the rent. Carson has no background in housing policy, is an anti-welfare ideologue and ruled himself out of a cabinet job shortly after the election. “Dr Carson feels he has no government experience,” his spokesman said at the time. “He’s never run a federal agency. The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.”

The fast-food mogul Andrew Puzder, who was tapped to run the department of labour, doesn’t like . . . well . . . labour. He prefers robots, telling Business Insider in March 2016: “They’re always polite . . . They never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex or race discrimination case.”

The billionaire Republican donor Betsy DeVos, nominated to run the department of education, did not attend state school and neither did any of her four children. She has never been a teacher, has no background in education and is a champion of school vouchers and privatisation. To quote the education historian Diane Ravitch: “If confirmed, DeVos will be the first education secretary who is actively hostile to public education.”

The former Texas governor Rick Perry, nominated for the role of energy secretary by Trump, promised to abolish the department that he has been asked to run while trying to secure his party’s presidential nomination in 2011. Compare and contrast Perry, who has an undergraduate degree in animal science but failed a chemistry course in college, with his two predecessors under President Obama: Dr Ernest Moniz, the former head of MIT’s physics department, and Dr Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist from Berkeley. In many ways, Perry, who spent the latter half of 2016 as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, is the ultimate kakistocratic appointment.

“Do Trump’s cabinet picks want to run the government – or dismantle it?” asked a headline in the Chicago Tribune in December. That’s one rather polite way of putting it. Another would be to note, as the Online Etymology Dictionary does, that kakistocracy comes from kakistos, the Greek word for “worst”, which is a superlative of kakos, or “bad”, which “is related to the general Indo-European word for ‘defecate’”.

Mehdi Hasan has rejoined the New Statesman as a contributing editor and will write a fortnightly column on US politics

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era