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Musharraf and the Tragedy of American Policy

In what is being described as “a second coup,” Pakistani strongman Pervez Musharraf threw his country into more turmoil on Saturday. He suspended the constitution, imposed a state of emergency, called out the army, and rounded up hundreds of opponents. As the Washington Post noted, the general has decided to shoot his way out of an eight-month crisis surrounding his increasingly unpopular rule. “I cannot allow this country to commit suicide,” the former commando said. In reality, what he could not allow is the judiciary to invalidate last month’s election in which he won another term as president. That’s why Musharraf, among his other acts, rounded up lawyers and purged the Supreme Court.

In response, Washington cranked up the word machine. There were the perfunctory calls for a return to democracy from our Secretary of State, but the most telling comment came from Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell. “Pakistan is a very important ally in the war on terror,” he said. Of course. Condoleezza Rice threatened to cut aid to Islamabad, but she also noted that “some of the assistance that has been going to Pakistan is directly related to the counterterrorism mission.” To make a long story short, Musharraf, when he hears such ambiguous statements from the American capital, evidently believes he can do what he wants. Washington, he knows, is terrified by instability in his country.

It is, however, the general who is causing instability in Pakistan, and his efforts to fight Islamic fanatics are less than impressive. Yet American policymakers seem to think there is no alternative to him. “The United States has never put all of its chips on Musharraf,” said Condoleezza Rice yesterday. This, however, is news to the world. For decades, Washington has been held hostage to the series of miscreants who have misruled Pakistan. To support them, successive administrations in the America capital always opted for short-term compromises. Those compromises were always intended to solve the problem of the day, but unfortunately they have, over the long term, made the situation in that country worse.

People complain about the predominance of idealism in American foreign policy. Yet the events now unfolding in Islamabad once again show the failure of realism. It’s evident that cynical bargains meant to protect America are producing a disaster—possibly of historic proportions. The tragedy of our policy is that policymakers have been afraid that true democracy in Pakistan would result in the election of Islamic militants. Yet from all we know, free elections would produce moderate leaders. Max Boot wrote about this in July, and the New York Times does so today.


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