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The wrong bogeyman

india Updated: Dec 03, 2011 00:42 IST
Anirudh Bhattacharya
Anirudh Bhattacharya

In recent days, we've been getting more of the Washington cliché du jour, that relations between the US and Pakistan have reached "a new low". Actually, these ties have reached so many new lows that they should be digging their way through to China.

Mr Obvious is well employed, with phrases such as widening rifts and gulfs. So many protests have been lodged that they now require additional housing. Lawmakers are riled and threaten tough diplomacy. Or, as the Chinese news agency Xinhua inventively avers: "To say relations between Pakistan and Nato are on edge is an understatement."

Effigies of American President Barack Obama have been burnt across cities in Pakistan. Matters are getting to a stage where Pakistan's Telecommunication Authority may soon outlaw using the words 'hope' and 'change' in text messages.

The latest flare-up comes courtesy the Nato air strikes that killed nearly two dozen Pakistani soldiers, though Afghan and American officials have claimed the strikes were in response to an attack originating from or near military bases in Pakistan. Obviously, something went very wrong. Something also went awry with Hussain Haqqani - no favourite of Pakistan's Deep State, particularly the army and the ISI - who was dumped as ambassador to the US due to Memogate, when he allegedly tried to warn America of an impending coup in Pakistan after Osama bin Laden's execution in Abbottabad. At this rate, you could soon describe Pakistan as a State sponsor of error.

However, if you were to ask Washington's policy gurus about the biggest national security crisis facing the US, the answer, almost always, will be a familiar four-letter word. If you guessed Iran, you win a coconut (or since the Obama administration is broke, an IOU for one). Understand that presidential elections are due in November 2012. And if Iran does actually threaten a nation's existence, it's that of Israel. But the US presidential elections could hinge on how Florida votes. And the decisive swing voters in that southern state are pro-Israel.

A few hundred votes can be critical. Remember the hanging chads of 2000, which allowed George W Bush to sneak a win over Al Gore?

America embarked on its Iraqi adventure ignoring Af-Pak in 2003. As we now know, it did so at its own peril. But it has a stocked toolbox to support Israel's valid fears of a nuclear Iran: From sanctioning Iran's central bank and covert sabotage of Iran's nuclear and oil installations, to getting Nato muscle behind a Persian Spring. But packing up in Af-Pak will bite, hard.

Meanwhile, if you were to call Washington for an updated Pakistan strategy, you'll probably get an automated response: "Please hold while we get the next available representative who can answer your question." Wait times for such queries, as we all know, could go on forever, unless you get disconnected.

But there's already a disconnect from the reality of global threats. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project survey in 2011, just 8% Pakistanis were confident that the US president could be trusted to do the right thing. However, 21% were willing to put their trust in Osama bin Laden, though that was before SEAL Team Six raided his porn stash in Abbottabad.

What should really get the attention of Americans is that 40% Pakistanis surveyed had confidence in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president. That's close to the level of confidence Americans have in their own president, according to the latest Gallup poll.

As Chinese sage Confucius once said in a pre-Xinhua age, "When the wise man points at the moon, the idiot looks at the finger."

Every presidential election cycle, the Iranian bogeyman crawls out from under the bed to scare the living daylights out of the candidates claiming to be ablest at answering that critical 3 am phone call. But, really, it should be Pakistan keeping them awake all night.

Currently based in Toronto, Anirudh Bhattacharyya has been a New York-based foreign correspondent for eight years. The views expressed by the author are personal.