US aid and the search for security - Irfan Husain - Saturday, February 05, 2011

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AS Egypt teeters on the brink, Israel is bracing for the possibility of a hostile neighbour across the Sinai after decades of peace. These growing concerns, despite possessing the best-armed and best-trained military machine in the region, underlines the existential threat Israel continues to face.

Thousands of miles away, Pakistan is also an embattled state, with home-grown and external foes posing a real danger to its survival. Both have several things in common. Created on the basis of religion — and as homelands for followers of Islam and Judaism respectively — within a few months of each other, both have received billions of dollars from the United States in military and economic assistance.

Despite this steroid boost for their armed services, both states are perpetually fearful of external and internal threats. In Israel’s case, after having repeatedly defeated its neighbours, it still faces resistance from non-state foes like Hamas and Hezbollah. Externally, it worries about Iran’s nuclear programme, and now, about the possibility of a hostile post-Mubarak Egypt.

Pakistan is in a constant search for strategic parity with India, something increasingly difficult to attain as the Indian economy continues on its highly successful trajectory. We are also mired in a violent insurrection in the tribal areas, and growing terrorist violence across the country.

So the question to ask is whether US military assistance has enhanced security for the two client states. For a moment, imagine a world in which economic and military aid was not the norm. Actually, this does not require a major suspension of disbelief as the foreign aid model is a post-Second World War phenomenon when the two superpowers competed for influence, arming their respective allies across the globe.

While much of the aid programme was based on self-interest and strategic considerations, it has built up an unhealthy sense of entitlement among recipients. Thus, whenever the tap is turned off, client states go into a deep sulk as if they had been cut out of a rich uncle’s will. This was best demonstrated in the 1990s when anti-proliferation legislation in the US triggered a freeze in economic and military assistance to Pakistan.

In Israel’s case, the powerful lobby of its American supporters has ensured that the dollars never cease flowing, even though the Zionist state is now a developed state by any definition. And of course, it has received far more cash and military hardware from Washington than any other country in the world.

But what would the two regions have been like today had Israel and Pakistan not received the kind of aid they have? Clearly, they would have had to adapt their foreign policy to match their more modest means. In Israel’s case, it would have had to engage meaningfully with its neighbours, and not behave like a swaggering bully.

For instance, it might have stayed out of the Suez War in 1956, and sought accommodation instead of confrontation. In short, it would not have sought a military solution for all its border issues, but would have aimed for a negotiated settlement. It certainly would not have occupied the West Bank and Gaza.

In Pakistan, had we not been encouraged to seek the chimera of parity with India on the strength of our American tanks and jet fighters, we would have had to make the difficult compromises dictated by our modest means. The reason we entered military pacts with the US was precisely to arm ourselves to be able to confront a much bigger neighbour. But these alliances also warped our foreign policy, reduced our room to manoeuvre, and locked us into conflicts that had little to do with us.

Economic assistance, while seemingly benign, permitted Pakistan to divert its own resources to the military. Thus, it could spend foreign aid on development while it used its own scarce funds to ramp up defence spending. This state of affairs permitted the kind of massive tax evasion we see today. The ruling elites are able to spend some money on the physical infrastructure and social services without having to contribute their share to the exchequer.

In Israel, this diversion was unnecessary due to the huge amounts contributed by the Jewish diaspora. Billions of dollars poured in to pay for development. Also, the Zionist state had an educated population and decent governance, unlike Pakistan.

Clearly, there are huge differences between Israel and Pakistan, but their American connection and their constant security concerns are common factors.

In Israel’s case, it was not until the 1967 Six-Day War that it forged its present military links with Washington. Pakistan joined regional pacts like Cento and Seato in the mid-1950s. So in a sense, both countries had security concerns thrust on them before they signed up to military relationships with Washington: Israel by the combined Arab attack on its creation in 1948, and Pakistan by its brief war with India over Kashmir in the same year.

Nevertheless, the large shipments of modern American weaponry encouraged a sense of military superiority over their enemies among generals in both countries. And as these officers wielded political power in both nations, this perception influenced foreign policy towards their neighbours.

But circumstances change, as we are now seeing in Egypt, with the possibility of further turmoil in Jordan. Suddenly, the lynchpins of Israeli security are wobbling. In Pakistan’s case, the strategic shift began in the early 1990s with India’s economic reforms. A booming economy and corresponding clout in international affairs have made the concept of parity laughable. Thus, we are increasingly dependent on our nuclear arsenal to counter India’s significant edge in conventional arms.

Purely from the American perspective, the billions it has spent on its two allies have not given it the kind of leverage it would have expected. As we saw in Israel’s case recently, the government has contemptuously spurned Obama’s reasonable request that it suspend illegal construction on occupied territory. In Pakistan, even a pro-American president like Zardari has rejected — for the time being, anyway — an American proposal to hand over Raymond Davis, a security consultant accused of gunning down two alleged gunmen in Lahore recently, to the American embassy.

All in all, it is questionable whether the military relationship Washington has developed with Israel and Pakistan has served the long-term security needs of the two countries. It has certainly not furthered American interests, beyond a troubled anti-Taliban alliance on our border with Afghanistan. Time will tell if it is of enduring worth.

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