Home Lightbox Worse is the Enemy of Bad

Worse is the Enemy of Bad

by Ejaz Haider
Alain Jocard—AFP

Alain Jocard—AFP

Fuming is not analysis.

This isn’t strictly about the #PanamaPapers, though they provide a peg. This isn’t strictly about democracy either, a concept more talked about than defined with any precision. Neither is this about the Sharifs, though they make more than a cameo appearance here. This is about analysis.

I could make it short and say fuming is not analysis nor, as the discerning know, making judgments on the basis of one’s predilections and biases. But the issue is more serious and needs some explanation.

Life would be much easier if it lent itself to linear causalities, like dropping a glass. You drop it on a hard surface, gravity takes over, the fragile glass can’t handle the impact, and it breaks. Put a cushion on the surface and drop it accurately, the impact of the fall is absorbed and the glass doesn’t break. That’s a neat, straightforward affair. But that’s not life.

There are variables; too many, actually. There are also imponderables, which means we can’t be sure of the consequences of our actions. We are often called upon to make choices that are not about choosing between clear good and clear bad but between bad and worse. To modify the adage, the best is the enemy of good, in matters complex, good might just be the enemy of bad and force your hand into doing worse.

Mao Tse-tung once wrote an essay titled On Contradiction. He argued two main points: in resolving and analyzing a situation, look for the principal contradiction; two, the principal contradiction is a fluid, not a static concept. Put another way, the principal contradiction might lie between entity X and Y on Day A. On Day B it could lie between entity P and Q in a way which might bring into P entities X and Y against Q.

The danger usually is for people to identify secondary contradictions as the principal contradiction at various points in time. That would make them hop and hopping is not analysis. It betokens confusion and the inability to extricate oneself from the immediate and use a longitudinal design in appreciating a situation instead of a snapshot view.

Take Pakistan’s democracy and political parties. There’s a lot of form but little of substance here. Comparative politics over the past quarter century has amassed sizeable literature in trying to figure out the concept. Thanks to this corpus we now know today that democracy is many things, both in form and substance. It is also more than just electing representatives, though electing them remains a necessary condition. We also know that it is a mistake to think that democracy in and of itself means liberal democracy. There’s clarity that democracy’s majoritarianism can be lethal for pluralism. And it goes on.

Political parties are waning everywhere. There’s increasing interest in studying the phenomenon. In Pakistan, they have never meant much outside of personality and family cults. Take the Bhuttos out and there’s no PPP. Subtract Imran Khan from PTI and you are left holding nothing. Get rid of Altaf Hussain and you have multiple factions but no MQM. The PMLN is nothing much beyond Nawaz Sharif, though as friend Feisal Naqvi pointed to me the other day, the family does have some depth. That said, it still isn’t a modern political party.

Governance, budgeting, and policy priorities are areas where none of these parties invokes much confidence. Add to this a society that is largely out of joint with modernity and advancing knowledge economy and we have an A-grade bedlam.

We also don’t like politicians. We believe the worst about them. We like to lynch them, figuratively speaking. Into this come the #PanamaPapers. Tongues wag, people go up on their hind legs. They bay for the blood of the Sharifs. The Sharifs, instead of responding with clarity and precision about their wealth, use the government machinery to attack others. That’s the classic attempt to dig deeper in trying to get out of a hole. That adds to peoples’ snapshot view of the situation, which becomes a substitute for a longitudinal design. Secondary contradictions are mistaken for the principal one.

The Iceland P.M. has stepped down. David Cameron is beleaguered. What’s wrong with Sharif? Let me put it another way: the last I checked, neither Iceland nor the U.K.—at least since the days of Cromwell and his son—had a military problem—i.e., when politicians are taken on in those countries or when they fall or are besieged, that does not redound to the advantage of the elephant in the room because they don’t have an elephant in the room. Pakistan does.

Foremost then is to figure out where the principal contradiction lies. Between the society and the ‘democratic’ system or between the civilians (politicians and society) and the military. If it’s the former, huff and puff and blow the house down. If it’s the latter, then perhaps there is need to understand that blowing the house down may be the worse option and worse, as we have noted, might just be the enemy of bad.

Of course, my assumption here is that for all its flaws and tribulations the current system is preferable to a managerially better system in the very short-term. But this assumption is grounded in empirical evidence of previous experiments with having uniformed managers in the driver’s seat. Those experiments didn’t work and there’s no reason to assume that they will in the future.

On the side of the politicians, however, there’s much that can be done and is being done. We have declared open season on them. We chide them; insult them; pull them down. Generals aren’t much given to appreciating that. They don’t come in through elections and they don’t like to be thrown out through the ballot. Either they go feet first or it takes a lot of time to hound them out—at a substantial cost. The process suffers through those interruptions.

My other assumption is that most of us think we have had enough of that snakes and ladders game. If that is correct then our criticism of the politicians must be tempered with prudence begotten of a clearer understanding of the principal contradiction.

It’s not easy. The political scene is divisive and disruptive. It thrives on noise. The military is cohesive and efficient. There is also the issue of accountability. How do we make politicians accountable? Those are important questions. But they must be juxtaposed with a similar question apropos of the generals. Have we been able to hold them accountable? No, we haven’t. The politicians we can at least throw out.

So, yes. It’s good to bark up a tree but we must ensure that we are barking up the right one. Sometimes I feel like we tend to end up in the wrong jungle altogether.

Haider is editor of national-security affairs at Capital TV. He was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. He tweets @ejazhaider

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect, in part or whole, those held by Newsweek Pakistan.

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Tahir Munir April 13, 2016 - 7:44 pm

Clearly Mr. Haider likes the sound of his keyboard much more than he likes getting to the point.

I got lost somewhere between the glass, the cushion and Moa’s theory on fluid dynamics.

Next time please get to the point. No one is interested in your intellectual masturbation.

Gramscian April 14, 2016 - 1:03 pm

Mr. Haider loves to demonstrate his knowledge and intellectual prowess. He is an institution in himself, fountain of knowledge and source of all wisdom in the universe. We get it.

As far as his major argument is concerned, it reflects hypocrisy of self-proclaimed Pakistani liberals and moral standards of our intelligentsia. So bad desi liberals cant blame the establishment (which I detest as well) for Panama Leaks.

Scaramouche (@bilalchd) April 14, 2016 - 12:07 am

Not making much sense here. The military has nothing to do with this crisis. The Sharif family with their own actions have dug a hole for themselves. The principle contradiction here is a growing middle class vs the elite

Nadeem M Qureshi April 14, 2016 - 11:15 am

Would have saved a lot of time if the author would have got to his point quickly… if there is one.

Anarchist April 14, 2016 - 1:23 pm

The point is to show off his deep knowledge & academic caliber and that no matter what civilian rulers do, they are better than their military counterparts.

ChainReaction April 14, 2016 - 1:16 pm

I can hardly believe boots will march in mud this time, it has already taken much time and deliberation to rebuild the repo. To the column writers & journalists i request, please come out of the illusion and stop defending lesser evil also. Liked the term “intellectual ….” 😀

Anarchist April 14, 2016 - 1:25 pm

1. When it comes to writing, especially aimed at general public, simple is better than complex.

2. Obfuscation is not analysis either.

Nasir April 14, 2016 - 2:26 pm

Excellent article, but since it lacks the sensation, there is no abusive language and especially no humiliating jokes on Politians and democratic system therefore I doubt it can be a popular one.
People who are reciting examples of Iceland or other similar country don’t get the idea, in those countries, No body questioning the political system and democracy as such. In here many Hawks eyes on System and Sharpenig Teeth to tear it up.

Nasir April 14, 2016 - 2:39 pm

If it about only Panama Leaks, then there are lot others involved why we are only talking on One Family … It should be against all equally.
And as Aitezaz Ahsan there is both wrong with opening an offshore company. Then probably the problem remains Taxation. Then we should talk about Taxation. So the problems can be fixed for future as well. But if we kept on just eliminating Sharifs from Governance then, this will never gonna solve problem. This exactly has been done in last 68 years. We never fixed problem areas we only hate people and then new opportunist would take over. And When and If this is between choosing opportunist at the stake of instability , discontinuity of a process and moving back to square one … That’s the price Not worth paying.
So let’s never forget in a unstable and fragile systems like ours Nothig could be worst than Dismentaling whole system.

kashif Mahmood April 14, 2016 - 3:03 pm

We should brush aside a global corruption scandal implicating our PM because our generals are presumably corrupt too. This badly argued cloumn makes no sense whatsoever.

Najam Sethi July 15, 2017 - 8:47 pm

I would like EH to explain what, in his analysis, is the principal contradiction in Pakistan and how it can be resolved. Let other intellectuals then jump in and offer their insights. That will make for a truly enlightening debate.


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