The senior anchor at DawnNews, a television station associated with Pakistan's most influential English language newspaper, described the damage the Davis case has done to the U.S. image there in an opinion piece at Dawn.com today. You don't have to agree with all of his premises to accept his main point, which is that our public diplomacy efforts in Pakistan are pretty much dead.
Hearts & minds campaign?
The time to evaluate the impact of this issue on the vital strategic relationship between the two countries will come later. But at least in one significant respect, Pakistan-US ties are already badly damaged. And this relates to the nature and direction of public discourse in Pakistan about the United States.
The Davis issue has disfigured the environment in which the strategic partnership with the US was being nurtured. Raymond Davis endorses the typical Pakistani image of the US as a trigger-happy bully. In popular perception, Davis is the personification of a policy conduct Washington has displayed all around since 9/11 at a much larger scale — from the sands of Iraq to the mountains of Afghanistan and in the Fata region.
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This nationwide welling up of anti-US emotion pushes further down the already declining US ratings in Pakistan. This is major damage to the ‘hearts and minds’ outreach programme that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been spearheading to fashion a better image for her country in Pakistan.
The policy worked at three levels: promotion of goods and services that the US brings to Pakistan; dilution of criticism of Washington’s policies by a robust media policy of rebuttals, denials and counter-charges; and isolation of those organisations and individuals whose sense of reality did not conform to Washington’s interest in Pakistan.
Admittedly, this policy worked rather well. The voice of America in Pakistan got considerably amplified, thanks primarily, though not only, to well-planned vigorous pro-US media activity carried out by known native advocates of Washington’s interests.
To change negative publicity into a positive profile, Washington carried out vast and constant diplomatic engagement with the politicians and the military top brass alike. Statistics show that in the last year and a half, Pakistan has been the US officials’ most ‘visited’ country in the world.
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How many hearts and minds exactly turned in Washington’s favour, we don’t know. Perhaps not many. But something did change. Thorny controversies that once defined public discourse on the US disappeared into thin air. Towards the end of 2010 and on the eve of 2011 not a whisper was heard about the presence of Blackwater in Pakistan, expansion of US embassy premises, unauthorised and suspicious movement of US diplomats and embassy personnel. Even the matter of granting visas to US officials became a non-issue. The Kerry Lugar Bill’s preconditions for getting aid were totally forgotten.
But then came Mr Davis with his Glock handgun taking Pakistani lives and shooting through the heart the hearts and minds campaign. Since then Washington’s public profile has been completely defiled.
The strategic communication regime Washington’s spin doctors had put in place to create an enabling environment for successful diplomacy — called propaganda in old times — is completely dysfunctional. The trust deficit in the realm of public diplomacy is as wide as never before.
This is long-term damage recovering from which would take much longer than settling the issue of diplomatic immunity.
We do not know what Davis’s real mission was, but he certainly performed one task of strategic scale: ruining whatever little hope public diplomacy campaigners might have had of convincing the simple folk of Pakistan that the US was just a friendly giant they had no reason to run away from.