Post #86: With Friends Like These

The Pentagon Papers record a last-minute conversation between President Dwight Eisenhower and President-elect John F. Kennedy on Inauguration Day. The subject was the war in Indochina, which already was going badly. Eisenhower “wondered aloud why, in [US] interventions of this kind we always seem to find that the morale of the Communist forces was better than that of the democratic forces.” His answer was the deeper “sense of dedication” of the communists. But overcoming that problem, Eisenhower concluded, should not stand in the way of deeper US involvement in support of its friends.

From Eisenhower to Obama, no president has quite figured out how to resolve either end of that problem: working with an unpopular, repressive, but strategically important government whose actions and values are directly at variance with those professed by US leaders, or effectively combating a highly motivated armed opposition. Pakistan is a representative case—a military-dominated authoritarian regime whose value to US administrations lies in the common fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The US judgment for many years has been that the strategic alliance with Pakistan outweighs Pakistan’s consistently undemocratic and inhumane conduct at home. In just the last few weeks, Pakistanis have been taken out of their homes in the middle of the night on charges of subversion, the ruling government has survived a challenge of fraudulent election in 2013, and a number of senior political figures have been arrested by paramilitary forces.

Washington may quietly protest these offenses from time to time, but policy in practice is to maintain huge military and economic aid programs to Pakistan, and thus be allowed to conduct drone strikes. In fact, a review of reported US concerns about Pakistan shows that the chief issue for Washington has been Pakistan’s uninspired pursuit of terrorists in its borderlands, not its failures as a democracy. As a result, the US is a major part of the problem described above—contributing to the terrorists’ dedication, enabling hard-line military rule and the undermining of competitive politics, and alienating the general population. Thus does Eisenhower’s dilemma remain.

The list is long of US allies that understand how easy it is to defy Washington when their political record is up for review. They know that strategic value always trumps human rights and democratization. Only in rare instances has the US government actually carried out a threat that an authoritarian government either reform or face a cut or elimination of aid. (The US did reduce military aid to Pakistan once, after the flap over the US killing of Osama bin Laden and a US air attack that resulted in a number of Pakistani civilian deaths. But about eight months later, in July 2012, aid was restored.) Chile, Philippines, Israel, Egypt, Iraq, Turkey, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Brazil, South Korea, Haiti, Argentina . . . all of them have at one time or another received substantial US aid despite full knowledge in Washington of their governments’ discarding of democratic norms and often horrific behavior toward their own citizens. Military officers from many of these countries regularly send officers to the US for training, which supposedly includes learning to respect human rights, only to return home ready to wreak vengeance on protesting civilians—using US weapons in many instances, in violation of longstanding agreements.

Why does the US countenance torture, imprisonment without trial, denial of fundamental freedoms, and other abuses by governments that receive its aid? A cynic would say, with some justice, that since the US government practices these same things at home and abroad from time to time, taking a hard line with allies that do the same would be an obvious double standard. I suggest two other answers. First, some US officials actually believe they can induce reforms through patient persuasion, using aid as leverage. Second, too many US leaders regard the abuses as a nuisance, since foreign policy in practice is about power relations and not ethics. (As we learned from the US-supported overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile, State Department area or country specialists may often disagree with that prioritization, only to be overruled by their superiors.) Thus, leading US officials over many years have decided that governments with valuable assets need to be given a wide berth; they need time to reform, officials will say. Punishing or pressuring friendly authoritarian regimes thus becomes mere theater, intended only for critics back home.

While this game plays out, US support of Pakistan remains robust. Consider the following:


  • Between 1951 and 2011, total US aid to Pakistan came to $67 billion ( In recent years US aid has averaged around $1.5 billion.
  • According to the Congressional Research Service, between FY2002 and FY2015, US security-related assistance—referring to six separate programs in military training and counterterrorism and counternarcotics activity as well as weapons sales—amounts to around $7.6 billion.
  • If we include another special military program under which the defense department reimburses Pakistan for support of US-led military activities (a total of nearly $13 billion between FY02-15), we have total security assistance in that period of over $20 billion. This amount compares with about $10.5 billion in economic aid (
  • Pakistan ranks 16th as a recipient of US arms from 2011 to 2014 (four years). See (Note that this list covers US weapons exports only and not other categories of military-related assistance, including drone strikes.) Half the countries in the top 16 are in the Middle East/North Africa, by the way.
  • In terms of human development, Pakistan ranks 146th among 186 countries, despite all the years of US and other countries’ development assistance. (India ranks 135th.) (The rankings are from the UN Development Program’s annual Human Development Report:


To the best of my knowledge, there has not been a single instance in which US pressure on authoritarian regimes that receive US aid has produced meaningful political reform. Aid has never been an effective lever, in part because the recipient government has leverage of its own—such as by making empty promises knowing the US values “security and stability” above all else, or turning to a US adversary for the same assistance. The best leverage the US has is itself illegal: helping overthrow a friendly government when its value has eroded, such as Diem’s and Minh’s in Vietnam, Marcos’ in the Philippines, and Allende’s in Chile. So what can be done?

It is time to end the charade of “reform for aid.” The US should dump Pakistan, which has long since become a strategic liability and a moral nightmare. No claims of partnership against terrorism or concern about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons or the potential for Pakistan’s descent into chaos can make up for that country’s corrupt, military-dominated politics, the well-known links between its intelligence apparatus and terror organizations, and the abject failure of democracy to take root and civil society to be respected. Maintaining “influence” in Pakistan by continuing to ply its military with economic and military aid has yet to be demonstrated.

Some might object to such a drastic policy change on the basis that it would be an invitation to China to extend its role in Pakistan. China does have important interests in Pakistan based on rivalry with India and Xi Jinping’s “One Belt, One Road” plan to broaden and deepen China’s economic ties to its far west. But China’s so-called “strategic partnership” with Pakistan, as Akbar Ahmed at American University tells us, contains “contradictions and tensions . . . Pakistanis are an overwhelmingly Muslim nation, and Islam, because of the tense political situation in Xinjiang, is not a popular religion in secular China today. There is also a public debate about the extent to which Pakistan should be supported. Those opposed to it point out the nature of Pakistan’s corrupt politics and breakdown of law and order” ( Let the Chinese grapple with these contradictions; I predict they will fare no better than the Americans and will wind up getting very little influence for a very large investment.

The bottom lines: While the US is engaging adversaries, it should also be disengaging from false friends. And peace and security are not possible without real (i.e., human) development.

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  1. President Eisenhower’s question seems easily answered. In every case ‘…Communist forces (and every foreign army we have confronted) …(have a)…deeper “sense of dedication”…’ than ours exhibit because they are fighting our forces for control of their homes. Our young people are always a long way from their homes in a strange place they’d never vacation within that is filled with people that want them to leave or they’ll kill them.

  2. I agree with the vast majority of your thoughts here, Mel, particularly as concern Pakistan. Some (most?) Amerikans have very short memories, yet a few of us do remember. As concerns Pakistan in particular, how on earth do they expect us to forgive/forget their years of quietly harboring OBL? That said, I still believe that Israel remains the prototype nation in which foreign aid levels should be effective. Obviously, reducing aid levels should affect at least some behaviors. It does not. (If I’m not mistaken, Israel is also the largest recipient on your list.) If no U.S. objectives are being achieved, why do we continue paying such huge sums in aid and/or selling them sophisticated weaponry at fire sale prices? Using both Pakistan and Israel as examples, what would be the downside of withdrawing all but in-kind, humanitarian aid to both nations (and perhaps others)? And please, in the case of Israel, let us keep the ‘ Jewish Lobby’ out of the debate and at arm’s length. This is a secular debate, not a religious one. I continue to to ponder these questions and read a bit, but don’t find any reasonable answers.
    Thank you for yet another stimulating post,

    1. Correction: In lines 6-8, the intended operative word was, ‘reduced,’ not ‘ effective. -C.

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