A Return to Pessimism

In a moment of optimism I had hoped that after Musharraf had paved the way for Benazir Bhutto’s return from exile and her narrow escape from a Taliban bomb, Pakistan’s ruling elite were showing signs of uniting against the threat of Islamic radicalism. I was wrong. Whatever plans Musharraf had for a transition back to democracy involving Bhutto (why let her return otherwise?) were upset by his feud with the supreme court. I would like to believe that deposed Chief Justice Chaudhry was simply upholding the law by disallowing Musharraf’s reelection on crystal clear constitutional grounds, but it feels like just another power play to me. As I write, Musharraf’s new and presumably tame supreme court is dismissing the challenges to his reelection while Musharraf is promising parliamentary elections by January 8th. So it looks like the president – or dictator as the press is beginning to style him – is well on the way to forcing the outcome he wanted. The New York Times sums up this remarkably sordid bit of constitutional maneuvering:

The powerful challenge that the previous Supreme Court represented to General Musharraf was the main reason why, on Nov. 3, days before the court was due to rule, he introduced de facto martial law, suspending the Constitution, dismissing the Supreme Court, and arresting the chief justice and other leading judges, a senior government aide has admitted.

After dismissing the chief justice and the previous Supreme Court, General Musharraf appointed a new court of 11 judges who took an oath under the temporary Provisional Constitutional Order, which is in force under the emergency rule.

What has been most disappointing to me is that the response to Musharraf’s state of emergency has been simply more divisive politics from Bhutto and another well known member of the elite – cricketer turned politician Imran Khan. None of this is the behavior of an elite that is drawing together in the face of a serious threat. Both Bhutto and Khan have tried to stir up opposition to Musharraf and been stopped with repressive arrest in one form or another. I wish it had been possible instead for them to work with Musharraf and negotiate a reasonably seemly, if not entirely graceful, return to democracy. I don’t think anyone expects real democracy in Pakistan any time soon – just a reasonable attempt at it.

In the broader context I see al Qaeda in deep difficulties in Iraq, and both the Taliban and al Qaeda taking severe losses in Afghanistan. Unsurprisingly, they have counterattacked where they are strongest – Pakistan. Such is war, but my main purpose here is to correct my momentary outburst of optimism on Pakistan. Bhutto speech, given with the sincerity of one who has narrowly escaped death, really was impressive and seemed to herald a genuine effort by a key Pakistani leader to unify the ruling elite. I have read nothing encouraging since.

Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick provides a sobering indictment of US policy that puts the train wreck in Pakistan in context.

The new American strategy in Iraq is based on a fairly simple assumption: The US goal in Iraq is to defeat its enemies, and to defeat its enemies the US must target them with the aim of defeating them. This is a strategy based on common sense.

Unfortunately, common sense seems to be the rarest of commodities in US foreign policy circles today. Outside of Iraq, and until recently in Iraq as well, the US has based its policies on the notion that it can bend its adversaries to its will by on the one hand signaling them in a threatening way, and on the other hand by trying to appease them where possible. And this is the heart of the failure.

Blogger Former Spook has a post revealing the problematic nature of Bhutto’s past within her own family as well as in Pakistan.

Obviously, Fatima Bhutto has reasons to be angry with the former Prime Minister. Her father –Benazir Bhutto’s younger brother–was killed in 1996, in what was described as a carefully-planned police assassination. Benazir Bhutto’s role in the murder has never been explained, but a three-judge Pakistani panel concluded that the killing could not have occurred without approval from a “much higher” political authority.

While Benazir Bhutto often receives fawning coverage from the western press, it is clear that she is less popular at home that we would believe. Which leads to an obvious question: if Musharraf goes down the tubes–and Ms. Bhutto can’t muster enough support–who does the U.S. support?

And finally Mark Steyn is highly skeptical in this column of the wisdom emanating from Washington regarding Pakistan – conventional, unconventional and downright daft.

It may well be that a Bhutto restoration will be the happy ending that foreign-policy “realists” predict. But it’s more likely that a return to traditional levels of democratic corruption will cramp the economic interests of much of the military and lead key factions to make common cause with the Islamists – as Pakistan’s intelligence service did with the Taliban. I don’t know for sure, and nor does anyone else. But sometimes it helps to bet on form. And, given the past 60 years, the real question is how bad things will be after Musharraf. This thing can’t be scripted, in Washington or anywhere else.

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