Senator Larry Pressler actually came to Pakistan to explore prospects for trade in soya beans. He ended up instead as seeming to trade insults with his reluctant hosts.
This was to be expected: the maverick Senator, who is an obscure figure at home, continues to be portrayed here as the bane of our life since he tagged the notorious Pressler Amendment several years ago to all US foreign assistance to Pakistan.
To be fair to him, the Senator clarified that he did not represent the views of the US State Department or the Bush administration. he also tried to backtrack, albeit quite unsuccessfully, on some of the rather indiscreet statements he made against Pakistan and Islam in, of all places, New Delhi. That he was undiplomatically gushing in support of India before landing in Islamabad didn’t exactly endear him to President Ishaq or PM Sharif, which is probably why they refused to meet him.
In all this hullabaloo, both India and Pakistan have largely ignored what the Senator has been mumbling all along: that he intends to push for the application of the Pressler Amendment to all recipients of US foreign aid rather than leave it as a piece of discriminatory legislation against Pakistan only. This, despite the fact that President Bush would like to get rid of the controversial Amendment altogether because it undermines his management of US foreign policy and hampers US leverage with Pakistan.
In his formal press conference in Islamabad on 13 January, after he had been rebuffed by the government, Senator Pressler explained the purpose of his less than charming visit: “I have emphasised that I have come here to listen”. That circumstances were not propitious to listening, however, was evident in the next breath: “I’ve got to be off in twenty minutes”. In those fleeting minutes, he tried unsuccessfully to set the record straight on two largely misunderstood or misrepresented points.
First, the Senator correctly reminded us that when the US determined in the mid 1970s that Pakistan had launched a nuclear programme, Congress proposed to cut off all aid to Pakistan under the Cranston Amendment. In the event, Mr Pressler had proposed his own amendment to bail Pakistan out whereby Pakistan could escape the harsh penalties imposed by Senator Cranston for as long as the American administration certified that Pakistan did not possess a nuclear device. The Pressler Amendment, which was supported by Pakistan and its lobbyists in Washington, therefore allowed Pakistan to receive US aid for many years more until the tap was finally closed in 1990.
Second, Senator Pressler drew attention to the fears in Washington about the spectre of aggressive, fundamentalist Islam in a region which could well be armed with nuclear weapons. The fears are well grounded, given the West’s experience with Ayotollah Khomeini’s brand of militant Islam. Although many people in Pakistan would share such concerns, they are justifiably annoyed at the Western portrayal of all Islamic values as ‘backward’ or ‘barbarian’. Unfortunately, Senator Pressler did not demonstrate any sensibility on this issue and arrogantly shot his mouth off.
The US government has distanced itself from some of the Senator’s unpalatable utterances. There is little doubt also that his visit has embarrassed the US ambassador in Pakistan who is involved in negotiating some extremely sensitive and prickly matters with the Pakistan government.
What is surprising, however, is the emotional reaction to the Senator in both New Delhi and Islamabad. Both governments know only too well that Mr Pressler is a bit of a non-entity in Washington. Yet the Indians crawled all over him and clutched at his words as though they were nuggets of American wisdom. And in Pakistan we hit the roof as though we had been suddenly scorned by a passionate lover of yore.
Whatever the credentials of Mr Pressler, however, the US government’s position vis a vis India and Pakistan is abundantly clear: friendship with both countries based on their acceptance of nuclear-free zone in South Asia and no exports of nuclear technology. Although the hiccups in Pakistan are louder today because we have been critically dependent on the US in the past, it is only a matter of time before India begins to scream tomorrow as it becomes more dependent on the US in the future. China is also learning that it cannot have its US $15 billion cake and eat it too. Before long, Iran should be coming to realistic terms with the US as well.
The post-cold war reality is not obscured. We would do well to make candid reassessments of what our long-term national interests are and how and with whom to best enlarge them. Nothing can be gained by clinging to the past and reacting testily to the future.
Unfortunately, the mindsets of policy makers and mediamen in both India and Pakistan remain out of step with these realities. That is why Senator Pressler received grossly exaggerated responses in both countries.