The saga of ousted Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan is a perfect case study in the way that US power functions in the world, and how the propaganda that’s used to conceal that power is shaped to mislead the general public.
Khan, a former cricket superstar who since his 2018 election win has butted heads with the US government over, among other things, using Pakistan as a launching pad for drone strikes, was removed from the presidency by a no-confidence vote in April 2022, partly fueled by Khan’s attempt to reappoint a friendly spy chief in advance of a coming election against the wishes of the country’s powerful military, partly by disillusionment among his coalition partners over his government’s failings. Those failings were legitimate and very real, including imposing International Monetary Fund–driven austerity after having vowed to avoid the organization.
In any case, Khan has said that the vote was part of a US plot to oust him even before it was held, an accusation he continued to repeat for the next year and a half. Khan claimed to have a document, a copy of a Pakistani diplomatic cable he couldn’t publicly show for fear of revealing government secrets, that showed assistant US secretary of state for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu pressuring Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States over the no-confidence vote due to Khan’s entreaties to Russia, while warning that leaving him in power would isolate Pakistan from the Western world.
Everyone involved denied it. The Pakistani military did, the country’s information minister and opposition party politician did (“fake propaganda”), and so did the US government, strenuously so. Washington denied Khan’s allegation at least three separate times: deputy State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel insisted “there is not and there has never been a truth to” it, the department’s senior advisor and spokesperson Ned Price called it “propaganda, misinformation, and disinformation — lies,” and spokesperson Matthew Miller said the US government “does not have a position on one political candidate or party versus another in Pakistan.”
The media quickly followed suit, accusing Khan of having simply invented the tale as a cynical ruse to stay in power and widely charging him with shopping around a “conspiracy theory” — a term that’s literally accurate, given that Khan was alleging a foreign conspiracy to oust him, but which in today’s political discourse is a close cousin of “misinformation,” one that effectively means “absurd and nefarious lie.”
Most of this commentary followed the same broad pattern: no evidence had yet emerged for Khan’s claims, and the potentially guilty parties had denied it, so it must not be true; Khan was deliberately spreading an anti-American conspiracy to play to his political base, knowing they would have purchase in Pakistan’s political culture given drone bombings and other long-standing outrages created by US involvement; and that it was ridiculous to think the United States had the power or inclination to do this. Often, a think tank fellow or US-friendly diplomat would be quoted making one or more of these points, lending them authority firmly establishing it an open and shut case.
All of these elements found their way into the Asia Research Centre’s Krzysztof Iwanek’s April 2022 piece in the Diplomat on the subject, which also picks apart the timeline of events to claim that not only could it not have happened, but that it couldn’t have had any connection with Khan’s February 24, 2022, flight to Moscow. “Khan seems to suggest that Washington is capable of changing a government in Islamabad if the US does not like Pakistan’s foreign policy,” he wrote. “But a quick review of relations reveals this as merely fantasy.”
“There was no US conspiracy against Khan,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)’s Center for International Studies research fellow Maham Javaid wrote in the Boston Globe. Khan had simply “turned fiction into fact, at least for his followers.” He was simply “trying to tap into anti-American sentiments to mobilize support” despite having not “a shred of evidence” for his claim, former Pakistan ambassador to the United States and UN Maleeha Lodhi was quoted saying by CNN. “This is nonsense,” wrote Hamid Mir in the Washington Post.
In Haaretz, Hamza Azhar Salam called it an “inescapable conclusion” that Khan had simply invented a conspiracy theory that’s not only anti-American but antisemitic (though the latter was never explained). The Wall Street Journal went further, not just calling Khan’s claim a “conspiracy ploy,” but suggesting that Khan’s diplomatic cable was faked by his team.
Fast-forward a year and a bit. Earlier this month, the Intercept published that very cable in full, leaked to the outlet by a source in the Pakistani military uneasy with its role in Khan’s ouster and the political crackdown that followed, and which is closely in line with what Khan had publicly argued.
According to the cable, Lu pointed to Khan’s visit to Moscow while raising concerns “about why Pakistan is taking such an aggressively neutral position (on Ukraine),” adding that “it seems quite clear that this is the Prime Minister’s policy.” Lu then mentioned that “if the no-confidence vote against the Prime Minister succeeds, all will be forgiven in Washington,” but warned that “it will be tough going ahead” if Khan remained in power, and that “isolation of the prime minister will become very strong from Europe and the United States.”
In sum, Khan’s maximalist charge — that the entire no-confidence vote was orchestrated by Washington as part of a plot to shunt him from power — is, at least by the evidence released so far, an overstatement. But the US State Department did clearly make use of the existing no-confidence vote, which was born in the first place from Khan’s domestic failings and Pakistan’s internal political machinations, to lean on its government by making a mob boss–like threat, to ensure the vote went the way it wanted.
On top of that, it did so precisely because of Khan’s visit to Moscow and his neutral position on the Ukraine war, a position which Washington at the time was, largely unsuccessfully, trying to dissuade much of the world from taking.
This isn’t surprising. The United States is the world’s most powerful country, its biggest economy, leads a powerful military alliance that is itself one of the world’s biggest and one of its most well-funded military forces, and funds even just the CIA with an amount equivalent to or more than some countries’ GDP. It gives billions of dollars of aid to Pakistan and has a close relationship with its military and security services.
Maybe most importantly, its government has meddled in other countries’ elections dozens of times and even outwardly brags about pulling the strings of political events around the world. Knowing all this, it’s more absurd to believe the United States doesn’t have the ability or inclination to influence political events in Pakistan than to believe it does. And the strenuous State Department denials that there was any US role in this suggest that the Joe Biden administration well understands that Lu’s comments to the ambassador weren’t meaningless and innocent.
Yet as we can see, many commentators — often highly credentialed voices with powerful institutional backing who are published in influential establishment news outlets — rushed to categorically dismiss the idea as fantastical and false and to declare anyone who advanced it as outside the bounds of seriousness. They were themselves spreading misinformation at the same time they were claiming to be correcting the record, taking a strident, absolute position on something that, at that point, it was impossible for them to know with full certainty was true or false.
And because there’s rarely any professional consequences in US media for these kinds of errors if they happen to line up with US government interests, everyone involved will simply move on. Some, in fact, are choosing to double down.
There is a style of dissenting commentary, usually on the Left, that too readily accepts claims of US culpability before all the evidence is out, while sometimes overstating US involvement and level of control of events around the world. But the opposite is far more widespread: commentators and political figures who presume the fact that evidence hasn’t yet surfaced (or simply ignore it if it does) means any such claims are obviously untrue and absurd, and that we should rule them out from the get-go — even though we have a mountain of examples from recent and distant history of the US government carrying out coups, fomenting unrest, and trying to engineer regime change, with documentary evidence often taking years to surface.
There’s one final irony to this. The Biden administration has cast the war over which it pushed for Khan’s ouster as one being waged against imperialism and on behalf of democracy, national sovereignty, and a “rules-based international order.” Yet here the administration is injecting itself into another country’s domestic political dispute and using its sole-superpower status to exert pressure so that it gets the political outcome it wants.
It’s as clear-cut a violation as you can get of every one of these principles. But it does fit neatly with the principle that, sadly, still more or less governs the world: powerful states can more or less do whatever they want on the world stage.