McCain's Blizzard of Words on Pakistan

Like a number of others, I did a series of double takes upon hearing some of John McCain's comments on Pakistan during this exchange in last night's presidential debate:

MCCAIN: Now, on this issue of aiding Pakistan... We've got to get the support of the people of -- of Pakistan....

OBAMA: [T]he problem, John, with the strategy that's been pursued was that, for 10 years, we coddled Musharraf, we alienated the Pakistani population, because we were anti-democratic. We had a 20th-century mindset that basically said, "Well, you know, he may be a dictator, but he's our dictator."

And as a consequence, we lost legitimacy in Pakistan. We spent $10 billion. And in the meantime, they weren't going after Al Qaida, and they are more powerful now than at any time since we began the war in Afghanistan.

That's going to change when I'm president of the United States.

MCCAIN: I -- I don't think that Senator Obama understands that there was a failed state in Pakistan when Musharraf came to power. Everybody who was around then, and had been there, and knew about it knew that it was a failed state. [link]

Perhaps McCain is being tutored on foreign policy by his vice presidential nominee, because I got lost in a hailstorm of nonsense there. McCain's insistence upon the need "to get the support of the people of Pakistan" is all well and good -- and I'm sure that the people of Pakistan would have welcomed that sentiment back in the winter, when Musharraf was trampling all over them. Instead, McCain unconditionally backed Musharraf at every turn, hailing the General as a "legitimately elected" president in the face of all evidence to the contrary. McCain even went so far as to call Musharraf a "scrupulously honest" man who had "done a pretty good job" and deserved the "benefit of the doubt" in the aftermath of his Emergency and Benazir Bhutto's assassination. I do not know when, precisely, the moment was when McCain looked into Musharraf's eyes and got a sense of the man's scrupulously honest soul, but McCain's character reference came several years after the Pakistani public got a good look for themselves, when the General brazenly reneged on a public promise that he would step down as army chief of staff.

But what should we make of McCain's puzzling claim that Pakistan was a "failed state" before Musharraf's 1999 military coup? The assertion goes well beyond defending the Bush administration's unconditional support for Musharraf in recent years against Obama's criticism. Rather, McCain necessarily seems to be asserting that Musharraf's decision to overthrow Pakistan's democratically elected government in the first place was justified. Failed States according to Fund for Peace/Foreign Policy, 2005-2007It turns out McCain has made this assertion before, asserting on the campaign trail in Iowa that Pakistan was a "failed state" before Musharraf came to power because it "had corrupt governments and they would rotate back and forth and there was corruption." Of course, reasonable people can certainly disagree about how precisely to define a "failed state," but it seems a stretch to put late-1990s Pakistan in that category. It's also not as if Pakistan fared particularly well in this respect under Musharraf. At least according to the index developed by the Fund for Peace and Foreign Policy, Pakistan was at pretty serious risk of becoming a "failed state" during each of the last three years of Musharraf's tenure as president. In any event, having "corrupt governments [that] rotate back and forth" certainly cannot be what defines a "failed state," as McCain would have it. By McCain's definition, one might conclude that India was a failed state in the late 1980s and again in the late 1990s.

McCain's justification of Musharraf's 1999 military coup is yet another example in which he seems to be singing a rather different tune than he was eight years ago. Recall that McCain was running for president when Musharraf overthrew Nawaz Sharif in 1999 -- indeed, he was explicitly asked for his views about Musharraf's coup in an interview only a few weeks later:

LARRY KING: How about military takeover bringing stability in Pakistan?

MCCAIN: Well, it may have brought some semblance of stability, but we only want the institutions of democracy that -- to prevail in this and every other country in the world, and to have to resort to a military coup is not something the United States should support. The -- I think [Gov. Bush's] point was that this was a very corrupt government that was overthrown, but it's -- in my view, it's still not a reason to overthrow it. It's a reason for us to do everything we can to help clean up that corruption and have the rule of law prevail in Pakistan and every other country in the world. [CNN, Larry King Live, Nov. 15, 1999, via Nexis]

UPDATE (9/28/08): Teeth Maestro rounds up some reactions to the debate by Pakistani bloggers at Global Voices.

UPDATE (9/30/08): Matthew Yglesias reports that he asked William Milam -- who, as U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan at the time of Musharraf's 1999 coup, "was certainly 'around then' and 'had been there'" -- for his view of whether Pakistan was a "failed state" before Musharraf assumed power. Milam's response:

[W]hile there were a lot of things wrong in Pakistan during the years leading up to the 1999 military takeover, Pakistan was not a failed state as we normally define such states. I am on record as stating publicly that, having come to Pakistan from Liberia a year before the takeover, I had a pretty good idea of what failed states look like, and [Pakistan] was not one. [link]

Posted by Anil Kalhan