Book Title: Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding Author: Husain Haqqani Publisher: PublicAffairs Pages: 432, Hardcover Price: Rs.799 ISBN-13: 978-1610393171
If anyone has heard former Ambassador Husain Haqqani speak, or held discussions with him on Pakistani politics, they would be familiar with his oratory skills, his dramatic tone and pauses as well as his sense of humor.
In his latest book, Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding, the same voice whisks the reader through the 65-odd years of contemporary history, as the author recounts his experiences as a student, journalist, political leader and ambassador.
However, he clarifies that the book is not a personal memoir. It is a historical account of the relations between Pakistan and the United States, a lowdown of the institutional power play that determines the partnership (or the lack thereof), and it is a collection of piquant anecdotes.
In its opening pages, Haqqani succinctly presents the thesis of his book: “The relationship between the United States and Pakistan is a tale of exaggerated expectations, broken promises, and disastrous misunderstandings.” There is a myriad of expectations and proportionately a multitude of complexities and issues, all masked under the label of ‘allies’ and ‘strategic partners’, which he brilliantly encapsulates in the over 380-page book.
Magnificent Delusions begins with the partition of India and narrates how the fledgling state of Pakistan had nothing to support its administrative, economic and, more importantly, military institutions that it had inherited from British India. This gives insight into the backdrop against which U.S.-Pakistan relations began and on what terms, with what kind of expectations. Soon after its birth, Pakistan ‘chose’ the United States in the bipolar world of the Cold War. “Having taken a position in America’s favor, Pakistan expected the United States to understand its economic and military needs and to offer generous financial support,” Haqqani writes. “Also in early September Finance Minister Ghulam Muhammad met with Charge d’affaires Charles Lewis to discuss the dollars and cents aspect of potential US assistance,” he adds.
According to Haqqani, the relation between the two countries began with greed from Pakistan’s side, while for the Americans it was all about protecting its interests vis.-à-vis. the Soviet Union. But an important caveat was that “Pakistani officials’ expectations were clearly disproportionate to U.S. diplomats’ assessments of Pakistan’s value”. Pakistan’s early requests for aid “took the United States aback somewhat”, particularly as “Washington did not share Karachi’s view of Pakistan’s centrality to U.S. strategy” and it “saw no urgency to embrace Pakistan”.
He later explains: “For its part, the United States has also chased a mirage when it has assumed that, over time, its assistance to Pakistan would engender a sense of security among Pakistanis, thereby leading to a change in Pakistan’s priorities and objectives.”
This drives home the point Haqqani tries to make i.e. the foundation of the relation was precarious and not based on the concept of mutual benefit.
And, over the years, neither country has changed its core policies nor have they given up the hope that the other will change. “Americans wondered how Pakistan could be an American ally without a shared interest,” he writes, citing the criticism of journalists and policymakers.
Similar to his previous work, Haqqani again focuses on the civilmilitary (im)balance in Pakistan. In Magnificent Delusions, he uses that same civ-mil prism to explain the relationship between the two countries.
But he also makes the reader realize the importance of personalities – dominated by military men in Pakistan and the pro-military anti-communists in the U.S. – in the historical imbroglio of relations. He mentions how the U.S. officially started helping Pakistan militarily under the Mutual Defense Agreement, but it was John Foster Dulles who drove the campaign to arm Pakistan.
In the same way, he explains how “the Americans were basing their policy towards Pakistan on their impressions of the people that ran the country instead of analyzing their
policies”. During his briefing to the State Department, the then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Arthur Radford spent considerable time on his views of various individuals in Pakistan. He saw General Iskandar Mirza as “the number two strong man,” but in his opinion “the best man was General Ayub [Khan].” The minutes of the meeting reflect the U.S. obsession with personalities at the expense of trying to understand the Pakistani leaders’ view of Pakistan’s national interest, Haqqani contextualizes.
Similarly, years later, when the U.S. was involved in an expanded war in Vietnam, the then U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson expressed the “greatest of confidence in Ayub”. Therefore, Haqqani does not only blame Pakistan for squirreling aid and arms in exchange for military bases, but he also criticizes the United States for investing in military men rather than democratic institutions, since the very beginning. And even in recent times, as he explains in his later chapters, the two countries were in “parallel universes”.
Overall, chapter 5 of the book is the best read. Titled “A Most Superb
and Patriotic Liar”, the chapter reveals closed-door meetings between the United States and the Zia regime. It is interesting to note the ‘great relations’ the United States had with Zia, whose protégés today term the former as the bane of the country’s existence.
The chapter opens with the Zia being visited by General Vernon Walters, a special envoy representing U.S. President Ronald Reagan, where Pakistan’s military dictator gives “his word of honor as a soldier” to the visiting general that the country “would not develop, much less explode, a nuclear weapon or explosive device”. This was obviously not the case, which is why Walter had commented, “Either he really does not know or he is the most superb and patriotic liar I have ever met.”
These anecdotal snippets are really the strength of the book.
Along with a historical account of U.S.-Pakistan relations and narrating the persistent tilt towards the military, Haqqani also indulges in a bit of soul-searching, as he tries to expose Pakistan’s identity crisis. He does not delve too much into this, but he writes: “Instead of basing international relations on facts, Pakistanis have become accustomed to seeing the world through the prism of an Islamo-nationalist ideology. Even well-travelled, erudite and articulate Pakistani officials echo this ideology without realizing that holding tight to these self-defeating ideas makes little impact on the rest of the world;
Haqqani does not only blame Pakistan for squirreling aid and arms in exchange for military bases, but he also criticizes the United States for investing in military men rather than democratic institutions, since the very beginning.
the gap is widening between how Pakistanis and the rest of the world view Pakistan.”
The book is a must read, especially for the “erudite, articulate Pakistani officials” Haqqani speaks of and also for those in policy research as it not only highlights the policy faux pas of both Pakistan and the United States, but also emphasizes how “the relationship needs redefinition, based on a recognition of divergent interests and an acknowledgement of mutual mistrust”.