"This is a disaster on many levels," the New York Times wrote in its first editorial on the colossal floods in Pakistan. "It is a tragedy for millions of people. It also is a strategic threat—to the stability of Pakistan’s nuclear-armed government and to American efforts to suppress Al Qaeda." Why? Because the "extremists," by rendering assistance to their fellow Pakistanis, threaten to "use the crisis" to "sow more resentment toward Islamabad and Washington and win new adherents for their nihilistic cause." In other words, the floods—engulfing upward of 20 million human beings—were to be seen chiefly as a public relations opportunity to outcompete the Islamists in delivering aid, all in the name of advancing the "war on terror."
A pattern of instant, if perishable, conventional wisdom was thus fixed for broad swaths of commentary on the floods: it consisted of a quick bow to the human cost, then a fulsome exposition of the security implications for the United States. On PBS NewsHour, correspondent Gwen Ifill noted that "as the humanitarian crisis worsens, new questions are also being raised about whether the government of Pakistan is equipped to handle both this and ongoing regional security concerns." Ifill fretted that the military campaign was "being replaced by relief work" and asked, "Does one preclude the other?" Would the saving of people get in the way of the killing of people? NBC Nightly News showed John Kerry, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, commenting at a news conference in Pakistan that it was "important that Pakistan be stable. It’s important for all of our security that the insurgents not be able to use this in order to gain ground."
In its news pages, meanwhile, the Times reported that executive branch policy-makers, too, were concentrating on the public relations aspects of the catastrophe. Eric Schmitt found that "as the Obama administration continues to add to the aid package for flood-stricken Pakistan…officials acknowledge that they are seeking to use the efforts to burnish the United States’ dismal image there." And President Obama’s special representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, remarked on Charlie Rose, "If we do the right thing, it will be good not only for the people whose lives we save but for the US image in Pakistan." Or, as the Times summed up the matter in its editorial, "This is a battle for hearts and minds. It is one that Pakistan’s government, and the United States, must not lose."
The obvious thing to note about this conventional wisdom is the want of elementary sympathy. Everyone has seen the images of vast territories underwater and the desperate, stranded people. How, then, can we speak, like advertisers, of our "image" or, like out-of-control counterinsurgency experts, of winning "hearts and minds"? Surely what’s needed is to save people, and let the PR chips fall where they may. Very likely it was awareness of these issues that led Holbrooke to revise his position and say to NewsHour anchor Jim Lehrer, "I need to underscore that, today, we’re doing what we’re doing for Pakistan out of pure humanitarian need."