Foreign Policy

Pakistan: The Lady or the Tiger?

Democracy and realpolitik in Pakistan


As a source of contentment, being the world's only superpower is greatly overrated. With power goes responsibility, including responsibility for what happens in critically situated, faraway countries that we understand dimly and can't necessarily control. Like Pakistan, where we find ourselves playing a game of the Lady or the Tiger, in which a wrong guess is fatal.

The country is in the grip of a crisis brought on by President Pervez Musharraf's imposition of a state of emergency. When he seized power in a military coup in 1999, he said the previous government carried "a label of democracy, not the essence of it" and promised to create a true model. Plenty of people in Pakistan, disgusted with the failures of the deposed civilian government, were happy to believe him.

The democracy project, still unfinished eight years later, now appears to have been cancelled entirely. Musharraf suspended the constitution not to counter the enemies of democracy but the friends, including lawyers who had been marching in suits and ties and shouting, with charming restraint, "Dictatorship? Not acceptable."

The Supreme Court, he feared, was about to invalidate his recent re-election because he had not quit the military. So he cashiered the chief justice and fired a crowd of uppity judges. Meanwhile, police lowered a blanket of silence on the country by locking up thousands of critics and shutting down independent TV stations.

These steps brought words of disapproval from the Bush administration—which claims to be the champion of democracy in the Islamic world and hates to be proven wrong by its friends. In response, the general grudgingly promised to hold elections early next year.

At the same time, he ignored complaints that a state of emergency does to free elections what winter does to your flower garden. The administration was dissatisfied, but not enough to threaten a cutoff of aid, which could be the end of Musharraf.

President Bush is in a highly unenviable position. Once an ally of the Taliban, the general switched allegiances after Sept. 11, 2001, when a Bush administration official threatened, as Musharraf recalled, to bomb Pakistan "back to the Stone Age." His help was crucial in the war in Afghanistan, and now he faces a growing Islamist insurgency, which has carried out several spectacular suicide bombings. The administration's wholly rational fear is that if we topple Musharraf, something much worse could follow. Imagine the Taliban with nukes.

If that's the alternative, anyone would agree we should suppress our gag reflex and keep our arms around the dictator. But it's also possible that he's more a help than a hindrance to Islamic extremism.

His intelligence service, which had worked closely with the Taliban, is assumed to be riddled with sympathizers. On top of that, his army has proven unable or unwilling to vanquish the Islamist militants who operate freely along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, occasionally venturing westward to attack U.S. and Afghan forces.

Musharraf claims the state of emergency is essential to fighting terrorism, but every police officer assigned to block the movements of former Prime Minister and opposition leader Benazir Bhutto (900 of them at one point) is one who could be hunting Islamic terrorists. On top of that, taking the fight to peaceable, democratic groups does not bother the jihadists in the least.

By treating moderate opposition as criminal, the general is bound to push more Pakistanis to extremism. So our alliance with Musharraf may contribute to the very outcome we count on him to avert. But pushing him out might bring in a civilian government that, like previous civilian governments, will be incompetent, corrupt and unsustainable. The result: more chaos, feeding more radicalism.

By now, the spectacle looks like a remake of a movie we've seen before, in which a dictator who has been our friend loses popular support and comes crashing down. But which movie? Is it the happy one, in which we pushed out Ferdinand Marcos to usher in an era of democracy? Or the grim one, when the Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the shah of Iran and established a radical anti-American theocracy?

Soon we will have to choose, keeping in mind two chilling facts. The first is that not choosing is a choice. The second is that in this game of the Lady or the Tiger, there may be a tiger behind every door.


NEXT: That's Nothing to Be Proud Of

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  1. The fact that Musharaff isn’t even using this state of emergy, allegedly announced because of the threat posed by terrorists, to go after the terrorists, but rather the democratic opposition, makes that foreign policy choice a lot easier in my eyes.

    Being a grown-up, I can admit that “our interests and our values are now one” is a line used by idiots or con men. Sometimes they clash, and sometimes we have to make hard decisions. But while it might be in our national interest to prop up a dictator who fights our enemies, it is most certainly not in our interst to prop up a dictator who doesn’t.

  2. It is a sad, sad situation when the main alternative to a dictatorship is a ineffective democracy. Not because the dictatorship is the better choice, it isn’t, not ever. However, the public, when faced with a crisis, will often choose the dictatorship to provide short-term solutions. Look at how quickly Europe became facist after WWI. Look at the rise of strong absolute monarchs after the Thirty Years War. People love turning to people like Musharraf when it seems there is no other way out.

    Of course, dictatorships are never a safe bet for the long-term. It’s good that the people of Pakistan have realized that. Now if only we could realize that we should at least stop giving blank checks to a man who regards unarmed lawyers as being the greatest threat to the nation.

  3. being the world’s only superpower is greatly overrated. With power goes responsibility, including responsibility for what happens in critically situated, faraway countries that we understand dimly and can’t necessarily control.

    Ummm, we’re not responsible for what goes on there, they are. But thanks for making the neocon argument on Reason!

  4. The point is, when you are a Superpower, you DO take responsibility for what goes on on the other side of the planet. It’s part and parcel of being a superpower.

    Maybe we should just go back to being a power.

  5. Prolefeed –

    With power goes responsibility, including responsibility for what happens in critically situated, faraway countries that we understand dimly and can’t necessarily control.

    Come on, you can’t understand the sarcasm in there ? Especially on a libertarian website, shame on you.

    That said, Joe’s arguement rings the truest to me. Propping up a dictator at any point needs to be done with one Hell of a good reason. I really can’t even think of a reason good enough at this moment, I don’t think that Musharraf should ever have been supported for eight years at all.

    As far as I know, libertarianism foreign policy is basically isolationist. It’s for situations like this that make me think that’s the right policy.

  6. I also think proppng up a dictator would take some pretty good justification. I don’t want us to fund and perpetuate a police state — and it’s unclear that Musharraf’s even that much of a military ally.

    In the same vein, actually, I think libertarians can be concerned with the freedoms of people in other countries. This article wouldn’t be criticizing Musharraf’s thuggery if Chapman didn’t believe that.

    We can’t necessarily control what happens in Pakistan. But the US’s fairly ineffectual response to the “state of emergency” worries me. I have friends from Pakistan who plan to go home soon to visit family, and there’s personal risk involved for them. I don’t know if calling for earlier elections, or putting diplomatic pressure on Musharraf, might make this thing blow over quicker, or if the result would be even worse. But it’s hard (for me, at least) to dismiss this as a problem in a “faraway country.”

  7. If we couldn’t prop-up dictators here in the United States where would all of our foriegn aid go?

  8. I like how sfc pointed out the fact that libertarians can be concerned with freedoms of people in other countries.

    It seems narrow thinking to me to hold one’s ideals only true on your native land (hmm, what would be most American’s native land.)

    Borders are equality barriers same as race, sex and religion.

  9. It’s amazing how a situation like this makes everyone into amateur psychohistorians; trying to decide which course of action will bring an outcome that is somehow “better” or “worse” for us. What the hell do we know? Our batting average for good outcomes while supporting dictators isn’t zero, but it’s low. Bhuttos niece wrote a great piece about her in the L.A. Times. She’s just as bad as Mussasharraf.

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