War Stories

The Freedom Agenda Fizzles

How George Bush and Condoleezza Rice made a mess of Pakistan.

Condoleezza Rice and George Bush 

Now we’ve really got problems.

The state of emergency in Pakistan signals yet another low point in President George W. Bush’s foreign policy—a stark demonstration of his paltry influence and his bankrupt principles. More than that, the crackdown locks us in a crisis—a potentially dangerous dynamic—from which there appears to be no escape route.

For much of last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other top U.S. officials had been urging Pakistan’s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, not to declare martial law. He not only ignored these pleas; he defied them.

Last month, Rice persuaded Musharraf to let exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto back in the country—and persuaded Bhutto to go back—as part of a power-sharing deal. The idea was that Musharraf, who doubles as army chief of staff, would retain control of the military in the fight against terrorism, while Bhutto would attract the loyalty of Pakistan’s increasingly discontented democrats. That ploy, too, turned out to be illusory: Bhutto was attacked the moment she got back; Musharraf showed no interest in sharing power.

Musharraf is portraying his suspension of the constitution as a necessary step to stabilize Pakistan and fend off Islamist terrorists. Yet the timing suggests it was, for the most part, a power grab. Pakistan’s Supreme Court was about to rule that Musharraf’s reign as both president and army chief of staff was unconstitutional. That meant the coming elections (which may or may not now be called off) would have ended his reign. And so he dissolved the court. He also arrested many democratic activists and shut down the nation’s independent media.

It should now be clear, if it wasn’t already, that Musharraf has been diddling Bush & Co. the past three years or longer.

In exchange for his promises to root out Taliban terrorists on the Afghan border and within Pakistan’s own intelligence service, Bush has supplied Musharraf with at least $10 billion in aid. Yet while Musharraf has rendered considerable assistance in the war on terrorism, the Taliban—and possibly Osama Bin Laden himself—retain their sanctuary in Pakistan’s northwest territories.

In exchange for Musharraf’s promises to be a good democrat someday, Bush has declared Pakistan to be a “major non-NATO ally.” Yet, with his strategically timed state of emergency, Musharraf has revealed he’s not at all interested in democratic transitions.

But what can Bush—or his successor—do about it? The problem is that there’s some truth to Musharraf’s official reason for his crackdown. He has been going after al-Qaida jihadists, especially those inside his own country, though not so much Taliban fighters on the border of Afghanistan. And he is in a genuinely tight spot. On the one hand, he fears what some Western officials call the “Talibanization of Pakistan.” On the other hand, he can’t go after them too avidly, for fear of sparking a backlash from some of his own officers who have Islamist sympathies and who don’t want to be seen as fighting America’s war.

As Daniel Markey, a former State Department specialist on south Asia, wrote last summer in Foreign Affairs magazine, the army is “Pakistan’s strongest government institution and the only one that can possibly deal with immediate threats of violent militancy and terrorism.”

If the United States were to respond to this power grab by cutting off aid to the Pakistani army, the army would turn elsewhere—and the Islamist factions would be strengthened. If the United States were to cut its links to Musharraf … well, Musharraf is the face of the Pakistani army. If he goes, probably some other strongman would take his place, but the tenuous coalition he has assembled could fall apart in the process, with unpredictable—but almost certainly unpleasant—results.

And let’s not forget the ultimate unpleasant fact: Pakistan has a test-proven nuclear arsenal.

Someone was speculating this morning on the BBC that the Bush administration might have a secret ally, an agent of sorts, within the Pakistani military command, poised to step in and serve U.S. interests if Musharraf fell. This is very doubtful. First, there are the obvious reasons (Bush’s intense commitment to Musharraf and the military’s relative impenetrability). Second, if Bush did have some fallback leader, it’s unlikely Rice would have put so much effort—however fruitless the gesture now seems—to getting Bhutto back in the country for a power-sharing gambit. Nor, by the way, are there any civilian politicians in whom the United States could put its hopes; as Daniel Markey indicates in his article (and he is far from alone in this view), there are no civilian politicians, parties, or other entities that could exercise power without the military’s nod.

This is why the Bush administration’s response to the clampdown has been, as they say, “muted.” The fact is, the United States needs Musharraf more than Musharraf needs the United States. And the fact that he’s rubbing our noses in it doesn’t make it any less true.

We can’t do much about this now, but we might have been able to do something about it two years ago or six months ago. The fact that we didn’t is a grave indictment of Bush’s foreign policy, both its practices and its principles.

For instance, nearly all of the $10 billion in U.S. military aid to Pakistan has gone to its military. Bush could have at least tried to funnel a larger portion of the aid to democratic institutions.

This crisis was triggered last March when Musharraf fired the chief justice of the Supreme Court for criticizing his rule. That set off the unprecedented street rallies by the nation’s lawyers. That emboldened the Supreme Court, which started to take its duties seriously. That gave rise to the near-certainty that the court would rule Musharraf’s reign illegal. That tipped Musharraf to suspend the constitution—and, with it, the courts.

Since Bush officials stay in touch with Musharraf quite frequently, and since they are known to pay at least lip service to democracy, someone could have at least advised Musharraf to get off this track. No one could have expected him to turn democrat, but he could have taken palliative measures—or cynical ones: for instance, paying off the justices—to ward off a crisis.

The Bush foreign policy was neither shrewd enough to play self-interested power politics nor truly principled enough to enforce its ideals.

One consequence of this crisis is that Bush’s “freedom agenda” is finally bankrupt. He will never again be able to invoke it, even as a rhetorical ploy, without evoking winces or laughter.

In his second inaugural address, where Bush first declared that the main aim of his foreign policy would be to spread democracy and topple tyranny all around the world, he warned dictators that good relations with America “would require the decent treatment of their own people.”

Musharraf’s proclamation is the definitive proof that no dictator takes—or ever will again take—that warning seriously.

In the same address, Bush spun an appealing but specious syllogism: Tyranny breeds discontent; discontent breeds hatred and terrorism; terrorism threatens U.S. security; therefore, promoting democracy enhances U.S. security. Or, as he put it, “America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one.”

Musharraf’s proclamation, and Bush’s muted response to it, proves that interests and ideals, alas, still sometimes clash.

But the most dismaying contradiction appears in the 2006 edition of the official document titled “The National Security Strategy of the United States of America.” In his introduction, Bush wrote, “We seek to shape the world, not merely be shaped by it; to influence events for the better instead of being at their mercy.”

Musharraf’s proclamation reveals that we are not the “sole superpower” that Bush and his associates thought we were; that sometimes the combination of vital interests and mediocre diplomacy put us all too desperately at the mercy of events.