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‘This Is Not South Vietnam’

The Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung reports that after a tense week, the Obama administration believes “neither a Taliban takeover nor a military coup” is in the offing in Pakistan. The Pakistanis, meanwhile, are feeling dictated to. A quote given to DeYoung speaks to a point raised in my earlier post:

“What are the Americans trying to do, micromanage our politics?” a senior Pakistani official said testily. “This is not South Vietnam.”

Whoever said that knows how to touch an American nerve. But the point holds. There’s a fine line between attempting to influence Pakistani policy and treating it as a client state. In the heat of panic about a collapsing Pakistani civilian government the distinction too often erodes in Washington.

And consider this from a Pakistani viewpoint. After every election in which the parties switch places, Americans like to tell ourselves either that we’ve wiped the slate clean from the previous administration (if we approve of the new ruling party) or that we’re turning our backs on a tested method of governance (if we don’t). But no one overseas chops the behavior of the United States into neat four-year installments. There’s always going to appear to be more continuity than change in American behavior to a foreign audience, since we can’t expect foreigners to view our politics with the attention to detail and nuance that we do. And so if you live in a country that spent the last eight years being told by the United States that it had to be vastly more attentive to terrorism than to its traditional concerns and is now being told that it has to be even more attentive, it’s understandable to think that the United States is ramping up its efforts to control your affairs.

The Obama administration thinks only an outbreak of Real Talk can help. Here’s how an official described Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s remarks to Congress last week that Pakistan was waving a white flag before the Taliban:

“Absolutely, they’re getting irritated,” a senior U.S. official said of the Pakistanis. Clinton, he said, “knows she went too far” in her unscripted testimony. “But on the other hand,” he said, “it was that kind of statement that helped wake up the Pakistanis.”

Except if it makes them inclined to view Clinton and Obama as irritants rather than partners.

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