Robert Novak

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Yousuf Raza Gilani, prime minister of Pakistan, will lunch with George W. Bush in the White House on Monday, July 28. That will not be merely another of the president's routine meetings with foreign leaders. As Pakistan's democratically elected government and U.S. diplomats understand, the lunch symbolizes a turn away from Washington's attachment to military rule under the discredited Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

Bush could be the last to appreciate the symbol. On May 30, he stunned Pakistani political circles with a personal telephone call to Musharraf advocating "a continuing role" for him as president of Pakistan. Musharraf, even below Bush in public opinion polls at 9 percent, had been elected president by a lame-duck Parliament just before its members were defeated in Feb. 18 elections. When Bush phoned boosting Musharraf, members of the new government were demanding the general's impeachment or resignation.

Clinging to a rejected strongman typifies a persistent practice in U.S. foreign policy. Bush has stuck to Musharraf despite the military's failure under his command to vigorously combat Islamist terrorists on the Afghanistan frontier. However reluctantly, Bush is turning to a new government, which last week launched a military attack in the Khyber tribal region, to be followed by more such thrusts in coordination with U.S.-Afghan forces on the other side of the border.

This was the military plan sketched for me in New York a year ago by Benazir Bhutto as she prepared to return to Pakistan after eight years in exile following her second ouster as prime minister in a military coup. The U.S. State Department brokered a shaky power-sharing arrangement between Musharraf and Bhutto, but Musharraf forced his sham election as president and Bhutto was assassinated soon after her return.

Fearing instability, the Bush administration publicly avowed Musharraf's continuing importance to Pakistan despite his crushing electoral defeat. Bush's May 30 call to Musharraf was a step too far, causing even State Department shrugs of disbelief. At issue is overall U.S. global strategy. Ousting Musharraf, the White House has feared, would signal Bush would next abandon Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq.

Robert Novak

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

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