Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Politics of Fear, Here and There

This is a follow-up on Anil's excellent post. I write to note how plain it seems that the I-had-to-declare-martial-law-to-combat-Islamist-terrorists justification for Pervez Musharraf's emergency declaration is primarily aimed at an American audience. If they are paying attention, even American neocons can see that the declaration will likely weaken Musharraf's ability to fight the Islamists. A clear-eyed analysis in The Weekly Standard concludes:
The declaration of a state of emergency is one of the worst possible moves Musharraf could have made to address the problem of the rise of the Taliban and al Qaeda. He has alienated his potential allies, turned away Benazir Bhutto, and united disparate elements of the opposition. Secular parties and Islamists will now share a single voice in opposition to his blatant disregard for the rule of law, and the emphasis of the Pakistani security forces will shift from combating the Taliban to maintaining order in an increasingly turbulent political environment.
Thus, most observers familiar with the situation in Pakistan understand that the state of emergency is in fact a ploy to protect power from slipping to the democratic opposition, not a move against the violent Islamist opposition. Certainly liberal Pakistanis---who fear Islamists as much as they fear Musharraf---are not fooled.

But the American public may well be fooled. I'm willing to give the Bush administration the benefit of the doubt and accept that the administration realized (albeit too late) that billions in weapons aid to Musharraf was being used simply to prop up his regime (and rather ineptly at that), and thus that the focus of U.S. diplomatic efforts in recent weeks was aimed at averting what Musharraf has now done. I'm betting, though, that Musharraf made the following sort of calculation about the U.S.:
What are they going to do once I consolidate power? Throw me out? That could really cause chaos. The Americans support friendly secular dictators like Mubarak out of fear that democratization will bring the wrong winners. Indeed, when they pushed for elections in Lebanon and Palestine they got exactly the sort of regimes they feared. Surely the Americans have learned their lesson and won't take that gamble with a nuclear-armed state. The fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban---which are real enough forces here in Pakistan---will provide Bush with plenty of cover to say that while he would prefer free elections, he's not going to meddle, etc. etc.
This is not a new situation. Throughout the Cold War, dictators the world over used the excuse of fighting communist insurgencies as the justification for seeking (and usually receiving) U.S. support. The strategy of supporting strongmen even makes some sense, if the only real alternative is a sworn enemy that would use the levers of power to attack us. Whatever doubts one might have had that indigenous leftist groups in the second half of the 20th century were necessarily our enemies, we should have fewer such doubts with respect to Islamic radicals. (Fewer but not none. For example, despite being an Islamic theocracy and state sponsor of terrorism, Iran was reasonably cooperative in our immediate post-9/11 efforts against al Qaeda before we decided it made more sense to include the Iranians in an axis of evil that also included their own historical enemy, Iraq. But I digress.)

So supporting a dictator while holding our noses may make sense in some circumstances, but not when there is a robust liberal democratic opposition that provides a viable third way. So far, Secretary Rice has made the right noises, calling for the restoration of democracy. But in an administration that tends to marginalize its own voices of reason, it remains to be seen whether anything of consequence follows.

Posted by Mike Dorf


Anil Kalhan said...

I'm willing to give the Bush administration the benefit of the doubt

Well, I'm not -- precisely because I think you have it exactly right in just about everything you say here. Except for this business about Rice making the "right noises." Even assuming that were the right characterization, it's way too little too late. The time when the United States needed to be speaking up was at least six months ago, when it should have been perfectly clear to them what was at stake if they cared enough to pay attention.

But in any event, Rice's "noises" have been decidedly tepid and off-key. They seem designed only to give the public appearance of concern, to placate critics and perhaps to deflect attention from the fact that Administration officials, in the recent words of one former US diplomat, "know nothing about Pakistan." (Never mind voices of reason -- with this crowd I'd be willing to settle for voices of the reasonably not-incompetent.) The stark reality of the administration's reaction sharply belies even Rice's laconic diplospeak:

1. In Islamabad, aides to General Musharraf ... said they had anticipated that there would be few real consequences. They called the American reaction “muted,” saying General Musharraf had not received phone calls of protest from Mr. Bush or other senior American officials. In unusually candid terms, they said American officials support stability over democracy. “They would rather have a stable Pakistan — albeit with some restrictive norms — than have more democracy prone to fall in the hands of extremists,” said Tariq Azim Khan, the minister of state for information. “Given the choice, I know what our friends would choose.” [link]

2. A Musharraf aide told the Guardian that the Pakistani president had "satisfied" objections raised by Mr Brown during the conversation. "There was pressure from the US and Britain in the beginning. But later on, when the government gave them the detail that elections will be held on time, and the president will take off his uniform, they did not have any objections," the official said, on condition of anonymity. [link]

In the meantime, the Administration and their friends in the UK have had it entirely upside down and backwards. They're fixated on whether elections will take place -- even though Musharraf can and will easily rig them, as he has before. (Indeed, in fostering a Benazir-Musharraf deal -- which played right into Musharraf's "divide and rule" strategy -- the US and UK must have been more or less counting on rigged elections. And let's be clear, putting all of their eggs in Benazir's basket was not any better than putting them all in Musharraf's.) Elections are important, but that's not fundamentally what's at stake here. What's at stake is protecting and promoting individuals and institutions that will be the backbone of any meaningful progress towards democracy and moderation in Pakistan -- the judiciary, the lawyers, the media, and the middle classes. As Tammy Ayesha Haq was quoted in the Times, "If you want to take the country away from Talibanization these are the people who can do it, the secular middle class." [link]. Well, unfortunately those individuals are now all being sacked from their positions, arrested, and thrown in jail, where who knows what is happening to many of them. (After all, unlike Bush, Musharraf has never said "we don't torture.") And those civil society institutions are now being systematically torn asunder.

And all of it on the Bush Administration's dime.

egarber said...

I also think Musharraf probably feels that India will stay relatively quiet amid his power grab.

From VOA news:

The two neighbors have fought three wars since Pakistan was carved out of India at the end of the era of British rule. Relations between the two nuclear-armed neighbors have thawed recently and General Banerjee at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies says India is in no rush to see President Musharraf depart the stage in Pakistan.

"In recent years Musharraf was seen in India as somebody who was constructive on the critical issues between India and Pakistan and especially on Kashmir and therefore somebody that India could do business with," added Banerjee.

Michael C. Dorf said...

In response to Anil, I should say that I was willing to give the administration the benefit of the doubt mostly as a rhetorical matter, so there may not be any real distance between our positions. The only possible difference is that I'm not sure how much influence the U.S. administration ever had. Yes, we gave Musharraf a huge amount of money, and it's possible that insisting on protection for civil and political rights as a condition of further funding would have affected his behavior. Anil's point, I take it, is that because the administration made no such demands and gave up any chance of influence. I agree. But if, as I suspect, Musharraf's number one priority was always his own power, there are reasons to doubt that he would have responded favorably to pressure. Which is not to say that pressure shouldn't have been applied.

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