Last weekend's TV talk shows, Sunday think pieces, and blogs focused on two subjects that are vexing but have no immediately satifactory answers. We will have to live with them.
First: What to do about Pakistan?
As I suggested in my morning-after piece on the Osama bin Laden killing, it is inconceivable that at least some (if not all) leaders of the Pakistani intelligence and military establishments did not know that bin Laden had been living with his family for some five years in a military and resort town a few miles from the Pakistani capital of Islamabad. Moreover, it is quite likely that the same leaders established bin Laden there and protected him.
Congressional leaders predictably have called for an end to the multibillion-dollar annual U.S. aid package for Pakistan. If the Pakistanis are going to keep betraying us, the thinking goes, then the money spigot should be turned off.
Seen from the other side of the relationship, however, the Pakistanis can find good reason to hedge their bets by simultaneously maintaining relations with us, al Qaida, and the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban. President Obama has stated publicly that U.S. troops will be gone from Afghanistan by 2014 and that a drawdown will begin this summer. Pakistan's leaders know that, after we leave, fundamentalist movements will remain active in the region and, more than likely, will govern Afghanistan.
Up until now, moreover, these forces have been useful to Pakistan's multi-year border struggles with India, making incursions into Kashmir. And Pakistan, a majority-Pashtun country, has found it useful to maintain working relations with the Pashtun-dominated Taliban both at home and in Afghanistan. Both Pakistan and India, since their founding, have been obsessed with one another, and their rivalry outweighs everything else in their calculations.
Most American policymakers see Pakistan as playing a dangerous game with the fundamentalists — perhaps risking an extremist takeover of that nuclear-armed country. The Pakistani intelligence and military establishments see us as overwrought about the fundamentalist forces, which, they believe, can always be contained. Why wage outright war with the fundamentalists and risk chaos in the homeland?
Something is at work here that applies, in fact, in many countries where the United States has interests. We see ourselves as having global interests — such as the need to combat terrorism and to contain nuclear proliferation. Most other countries see themselves as having only regional and local interests.
We see ourselves as champions of democratic political and free economic institutions. Many other countries see us, like the Europeans, as meddling in their affairs for economic gain or to establish puppet governments to our liking. In places such as the Middle East, the Balkans, the Indian subcontinent, and many parts of Africa and Asia, we are seen as either fools or knaves in our attempts at creating change in their countries. Why, they ask, would we spend many billions of dollars and thousands of lives trying to change regimes in such places as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya — none of which is of vital interest to the United States? Good question.
Pakistan has nuclear weapons. It has a strategic geographic position. We have no choice but to maintain working relations with it. But we need have no illusions about its intentions. Nor need we continue to shower U.S. resources at their present level on a regime that has often willfully sabotaged our attempts to fight terrorism in its region. We cannot expect Pakistan's friendship and gratitude. We can only expect Pakistan to pursue its interests, as it sees them, while we pursue ours.
The second big subject is: How to resolve U.S. federal deficit and debt problems??
The numbers are more daunting by the day: Federal debt headed toward $11-trillion-plus and due to reach its legal limit later this month. Unfunded obligations of $35 trilllion for Medicaid, $22 trillioin for Medicare, and $7 trillion for Social Security. Then there are public-pension obligations and the deepening burdens associated with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The United States, the cry goes, will soon be in the same category as Greece, Portugal and Ireland, our currency weakened, and our global power sharply reduced.
The first task is to deal with raising the debt limit, which will hit its legal limit on or about May 26. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner announced last week that, in reality, definitive action to lift the limit would not be necessary until sometime in August, by which time Congress presumably will have done it. Congressional Republicans are refusing to lift the limit until or unless new and tangible steps toward reduction of short-term defiicits and long-term debt have been voted. The program proposed last year by the President's Commission on Deficit Reduction would have done that but Obama walked away from it. A program being developed by a bipartisan Gang of Six in the U.S. Senate would do it but it, too, appears to be dying for lack of wider interest. The main game now is being led by Vice President Joe Biden, chairing a bipartisan working group. U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, whose so-called Ryan Plan constituted an opening GOP salvo, already has stated that his Medicare-reform proposal probably will have to be abandoned.
Leaders of both parties have conceded that their versions of tax reform will have to be amended.
Progress here is maddeningly slow but it does nonetheless constitute progress. The best bet now is that the debt limit will be lifted, sometime in the next few weeks, after a "framework agreement" has been reached by the White House and congressional Republicans and Democrats. Such an agreement would set hard deficit targets to be met over the next several years but without necessarily specifying steps to do it. That presumably would be left until after 2012 national elections.
Is this satisfactory? Of course not. It is conceivable that negotiators will come up with something more specific than that either just before or after they lift the debt ceiling. But, even if they do, it is highly unlikely that they will do more than punt on Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. They may make cuts in Defense and discretionary spending programs and, additionally, make minor tax-code changes, which would increase revenues (and thus reduce deficits) marginally. Anything more would be a surprise bonus. Deficits, at least, would no longer be increasing.
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