Musharraf vs. the Bush Doctrine

Rich Lowry
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Posted: Nov 05, 2007 4:47 PM
Musharraf vs. the Bush Doctrine

The sound you hear in Pakistan is a couple of pillars of Bush administration foreign policy crumbling away.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf -- the army chief of staff who seized power in a 1999 coup -- figured that if he declared a state of emergency and suspended his country's constitution, a Bush administration that has made the promotion of democracy a matter of gospel would merely tut-tut and keep the aid dollars flowing. It might be the only correct judgment the embattled general has made in the past year.

Musharraf's lurch back toward dictatorship, with the Bush administration unwilling to try to do anything serious to counter it, is another blow to the administration's doctrinaire commitment to democracy-promotion. It shows how other primal geopolitical instincts, such as simple fear of the unknown (who would replace Musharraf if he fell?), necessarily trump a preference for the ballot box.

Musharraf has been touted as one of President Bush's most important allies in the war on terror, but he has made a mockery of the you're-either-with-us-or-against-us polarity of the Bush Doctrine. Like that other nettlesome U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia, Musharraf wants to be "with us" just enough to stay on our right side, while "against us" enough to placate hostile domestic political forces. These governments can always respond to pressure from us to do more with the (persuasive) argument that the alternative to them would be even worse. Thus, Bush's black-and-white principle founders in a morass of gray.

Musharraf's latest coup doesn't invalidate the theoretical soundness of Bush's "freedom agenda." As a general matter, democracies are likelier to be friendly to the United States. Even in the particular case of Pakistan, the administration was right to push Musharraf to open up the political system and reach out to the secular opposition. He is basically being asked to wage a tough, bloody civil war against Islamic extremists entrenched in the northwest of the country. Without broad political support, the fight will be unsustainable. Already, the army has been eagerly surrendering to, rather than battling, extremists.

The administration nudged Musharraf to cooperate with exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, but ran into the usual obstacles to its foreign-policy goals: history and culture. In its 60 years of existence, Pakistan has never managed to establish stable constitutional rule, and the midst of a brewing domestic insurgency probably isn't the most auspicious time to start. The military has typically alternated power with corrupt, ineffectual civilian leaders like Bhutto proved herself to be when she was in power.

Pakistan is a microcosm of the difficulties of establishing liberal democracy in the greater Middle East. Its institutions -- except for the army -- are weak, its politics traditionally have been clan-based, and it is riven by ethnic divisions. This is the worst possible starting point for establishing a true constitutional democracy, but is basically the same cultural material we have to work with in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority.

This is the reason that the Bush administration's Middle East policy so often has sunk to abject hopefulness. There is always a chance that key local players -- your Malikis or Musharrafs -- will act responsibly and in the interest of greater political openness, but old habits usually triumph over hope. Bush isn't wrong to promote democracy, but he never should have done it in such a sweeping, grandiloquent way that set him up for failure on his own terms. His freedom campaign should have shown keener appreciation for the fact that he was dealing with countries that had missed the wave of democratization of the latter part of the 20th century for a reason. Our ability to dictate their political development was always going to be limited.

Something for Bush to contemplate as he watches an ally he has done so much to support string barbed wire up around his Supreme Court and jail political opponents.