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Democracy spells trouble for U.S. in Pakistan

When John Negroponte travels abroad, he expects to be listened to. The current U.S. deputy Secretary of State, formerly Director of National Intelligence (appointed in 2005), made a name for himself in the 1980s, as ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985. He was intimately involved in the brutal war against Nicaragua conducted by the “contras” as a proxy for Negroponte’s boss, Ronald Reagan.[1] But when Negroponte and assistant secretary of state Richard Boucher landed in Pakistan March 24, they were given the cold shoulder.

The visit came just after the spectacular election defeat for dictator (and U.S. ally) Pervez Musharraf, whose party received just 20 per cent of the vote.[2] Two anti-Musharraf parties – one led by Asif Ali Zardari (widower of Benazir Bhutto) the other by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif – are in the process of forming a coalition government.[3] But Negroponte and entourage arrived “before the new government had a chance to form itself” with key positions like foreign minister and interior minister still vacant. The Prime Minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, was only sworn in March 26. A U.S. visit coming in this context fuelled “paranoia in the country about being ruled from Washington.”[4]

“ ‘To my mind, it seems ham-handed insensitivity that brought Negroponte and Boucher to Pakistan. Because certainly no one has welcomed their visit here,’ said Pervez Hoodbhoy, a professor of physics at Islamabad’s Quaid-e-Azam University and one of the country’s leading political commentators. ‘It’s a sign of panic, anxiety, of things slipping through their hand.’”[5]

The Pakistani press was full of outright hostility to the U.S. delegation. A March 26 editorial in The News, one of the most widely read English dailies, was titled “Hands Off Uncle Sam.” It was a reflection of what was going on behind the scenes. “Nawaz Sharif was unable to give him [Negroponte] ‘a commitment’ on the war on terror, stating it was unacceptable that Pakistan had become a ‘killing field.’” Husain Haqqani, a Pakistani government adviser who attended the meeting with Negroponte described their content this way: “If I can use an American expression, there is a new sheriff in town.”[6]

The new anti-Musharraf coalition government is forcing Negroponte to scramble to reposition the U.S. attitude. As recently as November 7, 2007, Negroponte described the dictator Musharraf as an “indispensable” ally in what the U.S. administration calls their “war on terror.”[7] But when he left Pakistan March 27, he said, “Any debate or any disposition as regards his (Musharraf’s) status will have to be addressed by the internal Pakistani political process.”[8] That’s diplomats’ talk for “we’re throwing him overboard.”

The U.S. is in trouble. Its intervention in Iraq has been a disaster for the Middle East, and its intervention in Afghanistan has been a disaster for Central Asia. Now it no longer has in Pakistan, a pliable dictator with which to do business. The U.S., of course, is not above tying to undermine a democratically elected government that they do not like. With Canada’s backing, they very successfully isolated and undermined the democratically elected Hamas government in Palestine.

But Pakistan is not Palestine. Palestine has a small population, and is economically isolated, suffering under a long and brutal Israeli occupation. But Pakistan is a large and important Asian country that has been fully sovereign for 60 years. Tactics which might have worked in Palestine will be very much more problematic in Pakistan.

Bush and Negroponte will try, of course, to buy and pressure their way into the new government’s confidence. They will try to keep onside an indispensable ally in the region. But the hostile reception received by Negroponte shows that the terrain has now become much more difficult. That may be bad news for Negroponte and Bush (and their allies Harper and Dion), but it is good news for all who want to see an end to imperialist meddling in the Middle East and Central Asia.

© 2008 Paul Kellogg. This work is licensed under a CC BY 4.0 license.


[1] Michael Dobbs, “Papers Illustrate Negroponte’s Contra Role,” Washington Post, April 12, 2005, p. A04,
[2] Editorial, “Pakistan’s democracy outbreak,” Middle East Times, April 3, 2008,
[3] Associated Press, “Anti-Musharraf parties form Pakistan coalition,” msnbc, March 9, 2008,
[4] Saeed Shah, “U.S. visit to Pakistan shows ‘panic,’ expert says,” The Globe and Mail, March 28, 2008, p. A17
[5] Cited in Shah, “U.S. visit to Pakistan shows ‘panic’”
[6] Jane Perlez, “New Pakistani Leaders Tell Americans There’s ‘a New Sheriff in Town,’” The New York Times, March 26, 2008,
[7] Associated Press, “U.S. official: Pakistan’s Musharraf ‘indispensable’ ally,”, November 7, ,2007,
[8] Cited in Mumtaz Iqbal, “Is Musharraf toast?The Daily Star, April 5, 2008,

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