Case for Pakistan aid gets more complicated after Zardari's remarks

Even lawmakers who support engaging with Pakistan were left shaking their heads this week after that country’s leader demanded that the United Nations make blasphemy illegal.

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The disconnect between how the U.S. and Pakistan view the world won on full display in speeches by the two countries leaders, and it wasn’t lost on U.S. lawmakers who have long called for defunding aid to Pakistan.

As a result, it could become tougher for the administration to justify support for the strategically vital country.

“The foreign aid we give to Pakistan should be dependent upon their actions as a U.S. ally, not based on a speech,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Mike Lee (R-Utah) told The Hill in a statement. “That said, freedom of speech is a fundamental value upon which our nation is based and not one that is in danger of being altered anytime soon.”

The State Department for its part downplays any notion of a clash of values between the two countries. U.S. officials prefer to focus on Pakistan's effective protection of the U.S. embassy and improved cooperation in the war on terrorism, notably since the reopening of NATO supply routes to Afghanistan earlier this year.

Lee is one of 10 Senate Republicans who voted last week to cut funding to Pakistan until the country releases a doctor who helped the CIA locate Osama bin Laden. But even lawmakers more sympathetic to providing aid weren’t happy.

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), also a member of the Foreign Relations panel and this year's Republican congressional delegate to the UN, said it was “telling” that Pakistan President Asif Ai Zardari made a “direct statement against” freedom of speech just hours after a speech by Obama urging Muslims to temper their anger at hateful speech.

“I took note of that,” Isakson told The Hill in a phone interview. “No matter how you phrase it, totalitarian regimes and freedom of speech are always going to be at odds with one another. And what the president of Pakistan basically stated was that they have no real understanding of the concept of free speech or our First Amendment.”

Obama spoke on Tuesday, two weeks to the day after the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans during an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. He said that while his administration rejects the U.S.-made anti-Islam video that sparked protests in 20 countries, “I do believe that it is the obligation of all leaders, in all countries, to speak out forcefully against violence and extremism.”

“On this we must agree: There is no speech that justifies mindless violence,” Obama told the UN General Assembly.

Several Muslim leaders took to the podium to instead denounce the video, perhaps none as virulently as Zardari, who condemned “the acts of incitement of hate against the faith of billions of Muslims of the world and our beloved prophet, Mohammad.”

“The International community must not become silent observers and should criminalize such acts that destroy the peace of the world and endanger world security by misusing freedom of expression,” Zardari said. “Pakistan moves the United Nations to immediately address in earnest this alarming concern and the widening rift to enable the comity of nations to be one again.”

The two leaders' dueling rhetoric only marked the culmination of heightened tensions since the protests began, however.

Three days after Stevens's death, Pakistan called for a national holiday for people to go protest, leading to clashes with police that left at least 17 people dead. And the country's federal railways minister, Ghulam Ahmed Bilour, remains in his post despite offering a $100,000 bounty last weekend for anyone who kills the filmmaker behind the 14-minute “Innocence of Muslims” trailer.

And last Friday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton invited her Pakistani counterpart to join her in condemning the violence during a joint appearance at the State Department before the two headed into a bilateral meeting.

“It is important for responsible leaders, indeed responsible people everywhere, to stand up and speak out against violence and particularly against those who would exploit this difficult moment to advance their own extremist ideologies,” Clinton said.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar left her hanging.

“Allow me to begin from where you began, Madam Secretary, and to say that we appreciate the very strong condemnation ... of this blasphemous video, which has certainly stroked the sensitivities of the Muslims in the wrong way,” Khar said. “Your condemnation has given a strong message that the United States Government not only condemns it but has absolutely no support to such blasphemous videos or content anywhere. I think that is an important message, and that message should go a long way in ending the violence on many streets in the world.”

State Department officials said Clinton did address the protests, notably with Zardari when she met with him at the UN on Monday.

“The Secretary was unequivocal in stating that those who provoke violence cannot be tolerated, and it undermines the sovereignty of states, and we all must stand against violence,” a senior State Department official told reporters at the UN after the meeting. “And there was complete concurrence by Pakistani leadership, not only by President Zardari who was there, but by senior members of his government and senior leaders of coalition parties who joined them, that there was zero tolerance for both violence and extremism. So on this issue, they were very united.”

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