Shadow Government

Is there a foreign-policy angle to the Tucson shooting? Not really.

The tragic shooting in Tucson is a signal event in recent U.S. history and could well have implications for domestic politics. But the implications for U.S. foreign policy (this blog’s bailiwick) are likely minimal. Indeed, from a parochial foreign-policy perspective, the truly consequential act of violence against a politician last week occurred halfway around the ...

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The tragic shooting in Tucson is a signal event in recent U.S. history and could well have implications for domestic politics. But the implications for U.S. foreign policy (this blog’s bailiwick) are likely minimal. Indeed, from a parochial foreign-policy perspective, the truly consequential act of violence against a politician last week occurred halfway around the world: the assassination of the Pakistani reformer and the governor of the Punjab region, Salman Taseer.

So far there is no evidence that Jared Lee Loughner’s murders sprang from a coherent worldview that commanded the loyalty of a significant number of his countrymen. On the contrary, all the reporting contributes to a picture of a loner who was haunted by inner demons, fueled by drug abuse, and driven to do what he did by factors as idiosyncratic as they were despicable.

No less despicable were the actions of Malik Qadri, the bodyguard-turned-assassin of Taseer, but unfortunately for Pakistan and for U.S. foreign policy, they were anything but idiosyncratic. Qadri killed Taseer, the man he had sworn to protect, because Taseer had spoken out against the application of draconian "blasphemy" laws that condemned a Christian peasant woman to die for allegedly saying derogatory things about Islam. Qadri’s actions flowed directly from the militant Islamist worldview that fuels al Qaeda and is ripping Pakistan apart. And of great significance, Qadri has become a hero to many Pakistanis who share his agenda of imposing militant Islamism on the whole of Pakistan and beyond.

It is hard to spin worst-case scenarios out of the Tucson shooting that lead to an unraveling of American society. At worst, some handful of crazies will be inspired to try copycat attacks. Perhaps additional pundits will soil themselves by joining the ranks of those shameless partisans who rushed to blame this event on their political opponents. But these are minor compared to the scenarios that could well unfold in Pakistan. As Fareed Zakaria argued, the Taseer assassination springs directly from the gravest threat to Pakistan’s survival, to the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, and therefore to core U.S. national security interests.

Of course, the world will pay close attention to how the United States responds to the Tucson tragedy and so there will be indirect implications for foreign policy. Loughner reinforces images that many foreign elites hold of the United States as a gun-obsessed culture where even deeply mentally disturbed individuals have ready access to Glocks. Other governments may join many Americans in calling for changes to our gun laws. Of somewhat greater consequence, apologists for dictators and tyrants will doubtless invoke this episode for tu quoque ad hominem defenses when U.S. leaders press other countries on human rights violations.

Global leaders will also watch closely to see how President Obama deals with the rhetorical challenge before him: how to speak on the topic of the day — the highly charged partisan rhetoric — when his own rhetoric is dotted with macho boasts about bringing guns to political fights or equating the opposition party with hostage-takers or simply using the language of "enemy" to mobilize his base on the eve of elections. Given his own highly charged rhetoric that crossed the lines of civility and responsible political discourse, Obama faces a daunting challenge in calling on others to a more elevated civility in politics. But if Obama is able to rise to the occasion and offer commentary that is honest, self-aware, and healing, some of the "Obama magic" that has been lost over the past two years could return, with attendant modest boosts in U.S. prestige and influence.

But beyond that, there will likely not be much foreign-policy consequence from the tragedy in Tucson. The tragedy in Lahore, however, will likely haunt U.S. foreign policy long after the Tucson episode recedes from the public memory.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.

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