Ancient sky, death spirals and pyrrhic victories

What is common between James Webb Space Telescope and former Trump NSA John Bolton? Nothing, to be honest. The first unlocks ancient mysteries without drawing too much attention to itself. The second, Bolton, is, pardon the rudeness, a prima donna, an attention hog. It is always me, me, me with the latter. And yet both managed to surprise us recently.

The telescope did it by capturing the sights of the ancient universe. Light might be fast, but it also has a speed limit and takes its sweet time to travel across an infinite universe. So, the Webb telescope captured various images of the universe in its infancy. One of these images shows a part of the universe some 14 billion years ago. I don’t think I have found a better wallpaper for my computer or cellphone. Looking at it is always a humbling experience. How big is the universe, and how infinitely small and irrelevant are we, mortals?

And then one insignificant, irrelevant mortal managed to shock us on this tiny blue-green dot with his narcissism. John Bolton’s interview is a case study in odiousness. Here is a part of an interview:

Tapper: One doesn’t have to be brilliant to attempt a coup.

Bolton: I disagree with that. As somebody who has helped plan coups d’état — not here but, you know, other places — it takes a lot of work.

And somehow, the lede got buried within the story. The most important takeaway isn’t that the US plots coups elsewhere. Almost every nation of some significance does. But the main story is that a White House nat-sec dropout, a US recess appointee to the UN, Fox’s Frankenstein’s also-ran, thinks he is brilliant.

But as soon as he shot his motormouth, I knew one part of the world where he would hog the attention economy was Pakistan. There are three reasons for that. One, Pakistan has had an unfair share of intrigues, coups, assassinations and, for the past two decades, acts of terrorism. Two, with dwindling academic standards, even the educated class in the country is less informed, presenting fertile ground for conspiracy theories. Third, the country is already gripped by a recent conspiracy theory borne out of political instability. The timing of the interview almost felt sinister.

But that is not all. Since the global economic crisis is worsening, a long ill-managed economy like Pakistan is bound to feel the heat, and Sri Lanka, another financial partner with China, has gone through hell; there is renewed talk of Pakistan’s collapse. Michael Rubin, of American Enterprise Institute and a Bush 43 alum, recently wrote a piece titled, “Pakistan’s coming collapse should worry the world.” I know the title leaves nothing to the imagination. But let’s face it. That is the only reason it is being discussed in this space. Rubin, otherwise, merits little attention. And unfortunately, that is a statement of fact, not an emotional retort.

Had this piece been written two decades ago or more, I am sure my resulting column would have resulted in incentives and charged diatribes. But as you progress further in this piece, you will notice that it is not. The revulsion in my heart is replaced by pity. When smart people choose to act stupid, what else can you do?

Personally, I have no reason to doubt Rubin’s integrity. I will not try to validate the claim that he has recently been accused of writing pay-to-play pieces, for example, the article against human rights watch, which allegedly was sponsored by the UAE government. Or many other similar ones. I want to believe that this is his informed view. And honestly, not all the concerns flagged in his article are unfounded. Pakistan, as usual, is really in a difficult position.

Where I disagree are the elements of fatalism, cognitive dissonance and counterintuitiveness in the piece. From the experts in a discipline which could predict neither the collapse of the Berlin Wall nor the twenty years old Kabul administration, one would expect at least an iota of humility. You never seem to get anything right. Why would this time be any different?

Cognitive dissonance because one of the reasons why the entire world, including the US, is in a pickle is that a good fight is being waged elsewhere. The Ukrainian crisis is a significant contributor to the global economic disorder; that and former Republican President Trump’s mindless trade wars.

Finally, counterintuitiveness because that is how the US keeps losing close allies. One would have that the Bush administration alums are mad at Pakistan because their 20-year-old nation-building project failed in Afghanistan. But that is not true. When Ralph Peters came up with his Blood Borders map, the project was still going strong. When Seymour Hersh wrote about plan B to secure Pakistan’s nuclear assets if the country fell apart, the project was only beginning, and Pakistan was the most allied ally. The truth is that the world order belongs to the bullies. When a bully finds a target, all others gang up. Predicting Pakistan’s collapse pleases India, and that’s why you have been hearing a lot about it.

To prove how counterintuitive this approach can be, you must look at the facts. When the CPEC project arrived in Pakistan, the country was being shaken by terror attacks. Attacks caused by the country’s decision to side with the US in the war on terror. Yet, Western pundits were busy predicting Pakistan’s collapse, and that’s why Western investors wouldn’t come close to the country. Pakistan survived, and now the US pundits keep worrying about the growing Chinese influence. This time too, this kind of casual speculation is helping Russia’s case in the country. Who knows what happens tomorrow, but even Sri Lanka, the immediate trigger for this discussion, hasn’t collapsed.

I began this piece by mentioning the cosmic insignificance of human life. Let me close on the same point because it puts everything we do in the correct perspective. This billions-of-years old infinite multiverse reminds us what a bunch of nobodies we are. Our so-called ambitions mean nothing. The only thing that matters, at least to us mortals, is the human condition and the need to avoid pain and suffering. You cannot play dice with the fate of a country of 210 million citizens without thinking of their misery.

Everything dies. I will die, Rubin will pass, and so will Pakistan, Earth and this multiverse one day. The second law of thermodynamics promises as much. But let’s celebrate that stupidity will also die with all of us.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 23rd, 2022.


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