Robert Novak

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Overwhelming repudiation of President Pervez Musharraf by Pakistan's voters did not immediately dilute the Bush administration's support for him. On the contrary, the first election returns were barely in Monday night when the U.S. government began pressing victorious opposition leaders not to impeach the former military strongman.

Publicly, State Department spokesman Tom Casey reminded that Musharraf "is still the president of Pakistan" and expressed hope "whoever winds up in charge of the new government would be able to work with him." Privately, U.S. diplomats pushed hard against any effort to dislodge the now retired army general who had just suffered public rejection, unprecedented in Pakistan's 60 years, from the office he retained last year by nefarious means.

The United States had guessed wrong again in pinning hopes on an authoritarian, anti-democratic foreign leader. Musharraf follows the pattern of South Korea's Syngman Rhee, the Shah of Iran and Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, all of whom went into exile after public rejection. But Musharraf remains "our man in Islamabad," counted on by Washington to battle Islamist terrorists -- including Osama bin Laden -- despite his inconstant effort.

Foggy Bottom's stubborn policymakers are frozen in an irrelevant mindset, dating back to their effort last year to broker a shared partnership between Musharraf as president and the assassinated Benazir Bhutto as prime minister. In her posthumous memoir ("Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West") published this week, Bhutto detailed Musharraf's perfidy in reneging on power-sharing agreements made with her in two meetings last year. Instead, he engineered his election as president by a lame-duck parliament, purged the judiciary, imposed martial law and refused to resign from the army until virtually forced by Washington.

Since Bhutto's murder, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher has antagonized Pakistan's opposition leaders by insisting Musharraf was committed to a "good" election while in fact voting rolls were being rigged. Minimal election-day vote fraud is attributed to Musharraf's weakness rather than strength. The army refused its cooperation needed to really steal votes. According to Pakistani sources, the army high command was alarmed that Musharraf's unpopularity had undermined public esteem for the military.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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