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