OWL’S HEAD, Maine — There's not much good news coming out of the broader Middle East these days and so the successful election this past weekend in Pakistan is cause for at least muted elation. It is, after all, the first time in Pakistan's beleaguered 65-year history that a democratically elected government has been replaced by a democratically elected government.
So that's the good news. Toss in the fact that the voter turnout, the highest for parliamentary elections in nearly two generations, was spurred upward by women and younger voters, and was not deterred by Taliban attacks, then add that Pakistan does have a remarkably free press and a quite independent judiciary and, obviously, a military that now is willing to let democracy play out — and things don't look so bad.
Pakistan's support of extremist groups like the Taliban, and its high-level decision to keep Osama bin Laden hidden in plain sight, are the clearest evidence of Pakistan perversity.
Pakistan-US relations were so low last year that an article in the establishment journal Foreign Affairs suggested that the US should treat Pakistan the same way it treats other "hostile powers," such as Iran and North Korea.
As has been well documented, Dick Holbrooke, handpicked by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to oversee the Afghan-Pakistan theatre, got no support from the president for the two years he was in the role, until his death at the end of 2010.
A key part of the problem has been Obama's apparent belief — or at least the belief of his advisors — that Pakistan is a client state, that it needs us more than we need them.
A failed Pakistan or one infiltrated by the Taliban or other extremists could cause dangerous problems for the US. At the end of next year, we'll be pulling our last fighting forces out of Afghanistan. But it's never really been about Afghanistan. Pakistan is the key. Has the White House finally learned that?
The Arab Middle East faces decades of collapsing regimes, civil wars and even re-drawn borders. Obama's hands-off reaction to the most dangerous current aspect of the failed Arab Spring, Syria's bloody civil war, illustrates not just our relative retreat from our role as the world's night-watchman but as well a realistic assessment of the diminishing importance of the Middle East. And while Israel's concerns about a nuclear-armed Iran — and indeed Saudi Arabia's and its Gulf neighbors as well — may yet explode the area, the most dangerous region in today's world is Pakistan and its environs.
For starters, Pakistan has a couple hundred nuclear weapons. It has the Taliban, an insurgency movement that it mid-wifed and returned to haunt it. Strategically, Pakistan is the center of a complex web of relationships that entangle half the world's population.
The US sees China as a down-the-road threat to our primacy in Asia. India and China, the world's two most populous countries, have long been rivals, not so much because of their border clashes in the high Himalayas as their regional strategic ambitions.
As it moved out of its non-aligned leadership role, India aligned itself more closely with the US. China has long courted close relations with Pakistan, which has been reciprocated as an obvious way for both to counter India's pre-eminent position in the sub-continent.
Afghanistan only came into US purview through al-Qaeda and 9/11. But Pakistan has long exercised influence in Afghanistan, where the populous Punjab was arbitrarily split between the two by the Durand Line drawn up by the British colonial enterprise. India, naturally, has numerous consulates throughout Afghanistan for the primary purpose of offsetting Pakistan's influence.
The Taliban and nuclear weapons have created a potentially high stakes situation. A failed state, or just a couple of nuclear bombs in the wrong hands, would prompt a somewhat different response from the Obama administration than the understandable waffling on how to deal with Syria's chemical weapons.
So, as Nawaz Sharif takes control of Pakistan for the third time, what can the US hope for? And, more importantly, how can the US work with Sharif to reinforce Pakistan's stability? What must Obama do to keep Pakistan out of the "lost" column?
The good news is that Sharif, although a religious conservative and a two-time recipient of a military overthrow, is a sophisticated businessman who understands capitalism. He wants to improve relations with India; he wants to help the US negotiate a deal with the Afghan Taliban that would facilitate a peaceful US departure.
Pakistan has enormous economic problems: its infrastructure has been unable to keep pace with its rapid population growth; in the larger cities, electricity is cut 12 hours or more each day. Its education system is so weak that millions of Pakistani children end up at religious madrasas, often being taught extremist Islamism.
Sharif understands the economic problems that were as much as anything responsible for the overwhelming defeat of current Prime Minister Zardari's party. Sharif knows that for his party to remain in power, economic growth is essential.
He's realistic when it comes to India, hoping, as he did the last time he was prime minister, to improve relations. Indeed, he's invited his Indian counterpart to his inauguration. Better relations with India not only lower the overall military decibels but enhanced trade could provide a big boost to that economic bounce Sharif needs.
But for Sharif to really succeed, he needs the US to work with him as a partner. The Afghan war has cost the US hundreds of billions of dollars; a tenth of that devoted to Pakistan's economic development over the next five years could solidify US-Pak relations in such a way that there may be more hope for Afghanistan after the US military leaves. And, of course, as economic development works, and capitalism replaces cronyism, the extremist threat diminishes. It's an endeavor that rival India would surely welcome.
Based on past performance, the likelihood of Obama undertaking such a venture is not great. The bad taste from Pakistan's harboring of Osama bin Ladin remains an emotional obstacle, though great powers should be able to put reason before emotion. Throw in politics — not just increasing Republican isolationism but its ongoing obstructionism — and such a US-Pakistan alliance is remote.
Too bad: an approach that could enhance nuclear stability is surely a better one than watching from the sidelines and developing reaction plans for worst-case scenarios.
Mac Deford is retired after a career as a Foreign Service officer, an international banker, and a museum director. He lives at Owls Head, Maine and still travels frequently to the Middle East.