Mixed Messages

The case for standing by Musharraf.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf 

Over the weekend, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf declared a state of emergency, arresting thousands of opposition figures, dismissing large numbers from the judiciary, and closing media outlets. While domestic and international critics accuse Musharraf of trying to consolidate his near-absolute power, the Pakistani leader explains that he is trying to stanch the violence that has claimed more than 700 Pakistani lives since July, including more than 130 killed last month at a Karachi rally marking the homecoming of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Most observers believe that Islamists are responsible for the violence—in other words, the people Washington pressured Musharraf to take on after 9/11. Since 2001, the administration has delivered almost $11 billion to help the Pakistanis fight al-Qaida and its allies. Nonetheless, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters Sunday that given Musharraf’s heavy hand, Washington may have to reconsider the aid package. “We just have to review the situation,” said Rice. “President Musharraf has said that he will take off his uniform. That would be an important step.” Remarkably, Rice is compromising Musharraf’s only sources of political legitimacy—U.S. support and his status as a military man. Maybe she believes that the general should surrender his sidearm as well.

The Pakistani military, as is the case with most armed forces in the Muslim world, is the citadel of the country’s modernity, its most significant secular institution and protector not only of the modern nation state but the idea of the nation state itself. Still, that is a mighty thin green line standing between 1,300 years of Islamic military principles, many thousands of years more of tribal and ethnic rivalries, and a nuclear arsenal. We have no idea if the military has become as Islamicized as the rest of Pakistani society. If the level of Islamist infiltration in Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency is any indication, there is reason to be very concerned. When Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., complains that we have a Musharraf policy rather than a Pakistan policy, he needs to come up with a better idea. Musharraf is fighting the bad guys in caves as well as the badder guys who are much closer to the presidential palace, and there is no guarantee that anyone else on the horizon is willing to tackle that job for Washington.

If the secretary of state is concerned that Pakistan is falling behind in its commitment to democracy, she should recall that there is no democracy without the institutions of a nation state, and if Musharraf falls, there is no telling what would happen next. For instance, an al-Qaida state would be considerably less accommodating around issues of government reform, not to mention at fighting al-Qaida. Besides, the Bush White House has done such a poor job of articulating what it means by democracy, it is hardly surprising that it sometimes appears to be a major part of its post-9/11 national security strategy and sometimes not.

It is worth remembering that Rice’s comments were issued from Jerusalem, where she is beating her head against a wall spending American diplomatic prestige in the hopeless attempt, at least for now, to create a Palestinian state. The secretary’s euphemism for leading a horse to water and trying to make it drink is “transformational diplomacy,” a Herculean task that, according to Rice, “not only reports about the world as it is, but seeks to change the world itself.”

America’s chief diplomat is taking the Arab-Israeli affair very personally, not just as a possible, albeit unlikely, cornerstone to her place in history, but also as a reminder of her own past. Lately, she has started comparing the plight of the Palestinians to the civil rights movement and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to Martin Luther King Jr.

Implicitly likening Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to George Wallace and Bull Connor is a strange way to try to get your Israeli counterparts on board, but Rice is in the habit of sending mixed messages to important and useful allies, like Musharraf.

Consider this: If you are Mahmoud Abbas and you do nothing about terrorism—if your security services receive hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. aid and training and yet is reluctant to stop terrorist attacks on another U.S. ally and is handily defeated by Hamas, an Islamist group backed by the Islamic Republic of Iran—then you are a great visionary leader of a downtrodden nation that deserves all the secretary of state’s efforts at transformational diplomacy. If you are like President Musharraf and you fight terror, risk your rule and your life and perhaps the integrity of the state itself, Condoleezza Rice thumbs her nose at you and threatens to cut your allowance.

For all the claims that U.S. foreign policy has been stripped from the hands of the neoconservatives and given over to adults steeped in the principles of old-school realism—people like Secretary Rice—what we are watching here is a possible meltdown of U.S. strategic interests that is comparable to Iran’s 1978 Islamist revolution. Granted, Pakistan is not a Gulf security pillar, as Iran was, but the shah didn’t have nukes. The Bush White House has prioritized Iran’s nascent nuclear program because our confidence in Musharraf has given us the luxury to ignore an active nuclear program within the reach of Islamist fanatics.

And there’s an even bigger problem: What does it say to U.S. allies in the war on terror—especially those Arab and Muslim states, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, that are sometimes committed to fighting Islamists and sometimes not—that Washington doesn’t support its friends in a battle it enlisted them to fight? There are some Egyptian analysts who hold the Carter administration responsible for the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat because Washington failed to stand by the shah against the Islamist maelstrom. Who knows—perhaps the shah’s time had come no matter what the haplessly naive Carter administration did. But today, what leader in the Muslim world would dare tackle extremism if he knows he will get dressed down by the secretary of state at crunch time?