Tone down Pakistan rhetoric

It turns out that killing Osama bin Laden was the easy part. Dealing with the political fallout from the May 2 raid on the Al Qaeda leader’s Pakistan compound is proving trickier. And Congress isn’t helping.

President Obama evidently made a calculated decision not to inform Pakistani leaders in advance of the raid, which was probably the right move from a military standpoint but extraordinarily provocative diplomatically. With relations already seriously frayed because of civilian casualties from U.S. drone strikes and the killing of two Pakistanis by a CIA contractor in January, the raid was seen by Pakistanis as a humiliating violation of national sovereignty. As a result, the country’s leaders are under crushing pressure to assert independence from an “ally” that the majority of the populace considers an enemy.

In that context, the backlash from Islamabad isn’t surprising. Pakistani officials have demanded a reduction in the U.S. military presence, which has taken place, and an end to drone attacks, which hasn’t. Visas have been withheld from U.S. military and intelligence officials and, in the most problematic response to date, several CIA informants involved in the Bin Laden raid have reportedly been detained.

Americans, meanwhile, are outraged at such affronts from a country propped up last year by $4.5 billion in U.S. aid. Prominent politicians from both parties, including GOP presidential candidates Newt Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Va.), are questioning whether that assistance should be maintained. Talk turned into action Tuesday, when the House Appropriations Committee approved a defense spending bill that would authorize Congress to withhold 75% of a $1.1-billion aid package for Pakistan. This provision richly deserves to be stripped from the final version. As the Obama administration tries to preserve a critical relationship, congressional interference is doing more harm than good.

Pakistan’s responses to the Bin Laden raid, although troubling and potentially counterproductive, have been relatively innocuous so far. It seems hard to believe that Bin Laden could have been hiding in plain sight in Abbottabad without some collusion from Pakistan’s military or intelligence services, but Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates says there’s no evidence the country’s top leaders were aware of his presence. Unless such evidence emerges, it makes little sense to further jeopardize a relationship that is strategically vital to both countries’ war against Islamic extremists. Now is a time for diplomats to work quietly behind the scenes to smooth ruffled feathers, not for politicians to burst in with leaf blowers.