November 8, 2007

November 8, 2007 | Commentary on Middle East

Pakistan tumults

One of the persistent challenges of U.S. foreign policy is the necessity at various times to partner with allies of dubious distinction. You could call it "hold your nose" diplomacy. From World War II, pictures of the smiling faces of Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin serve as a reminder of the power of expediency. Had it not been for Hitler, this unlikely alliance would never have taken place.

Now, if a country's foreign policy is centered entirely on its own needs and priorities, like China's energy policy which has allied China with the likes of Iran and Sudan, there is no internal contradiction in forging connections with unsavory regimes. If, however, your foreign policy has a moral basis in human rights, international law and democracy promotion, then you may have a serious contradiction if your international partners fall short.

This contradiction can lead to the charge of hypocrisy and to real policy conundrums. It also leads to international resentment of the United States and radical anti-Americanism among populations that otherwise might have been more favorable to the United States. And yet, sometimes we just don't seem to have a choice but to persist with the lesser of two evils. Case in point: Pakistan.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf is no Josef Stalin of course. He is, nevertheless, a real headache for the Bush administration. In his declaration of de facto martial law over the weekend and subsequent countrywide crackdown on political opponents, he made a mockery of American-stated policy of supporting freedom and democracy in this troubled part of the world.

The fact that Gen. Musharraf did so in the name of fighting terrorists and Islamic extremists is not helpful either. The president's power grab is blatantly aimed at his political challengers and at preserving his own power - and probably his life as well, which has been precariously under threat since he came to power in a coup in 1999.

Today, unfortunately, the deeply unpopular Gen. Musharraf, whose approval ratings lag far behind those of Osama bin Laden, is closely identified with U.S. policy. He owes his power largely to his alliance with the United States, as his nickname "Busharraf" suggests.

If Gen. Musharraf is a puppet of the United States, though, he is one that is pretty hard to manipulate. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reportedly warned him against imposing martial law this summer, and she attempted to do so again last week, but to no avail. The Pakistani Supreme Court was about to rule against the general's bid for another term, a threat to the general's power that now has landed several justices under house arrest, including Chief Justice and presidential critic Iftikhar Chaudry. The Oct. 18 terrorist attack on political opponent Benazir Bhutto's motorcade, which killed 139 people, offered the somewhat ironic excuse for martial law.

Getting Pakistan right is no easy task. The country today remains a cauldron of radical Muslim extremism and a breeding ground for terrorists through its religious madrassas. It is unstable and extremely poor, and it is armed with nuclear weapons. Thanks to the former head of the Pakistani nuclear program, A. Q. Khan, the proliferation of nuclear weapons among rogue states like Iran and North Korea is one of the biggest international challenges today.

The Bush administration has put on the table a review of U.S. military aid to Pakistan, which has amounted to some $10 billion since September 11 in the fight against the Afghan Taliban radicals. This is not a bad idea in the context of an overall review of U.S. policy on Pakistan and its place in the war against terrorism. Should we demand that Gen. Musharraf return the country to the path toward elections? At this point in time, only if we are prepared to deal with an outcome that we may not like very much, though it should remain a goal.

For the United States, the challenge will be to remind the Pakistani people that our alliance with their country goes deeper than convenience in the war against terrorism. As mentioned in this space last week, recent opinion polls in Pakistan indicate rising support for the terrorists and plummeting support for the United States - a reversal of the situation after the massive relief effort extended by Americans to the Pakistani people after the earthquake a few years back. Pakistan was an important U.S. ally during the Cold War, while India was in the Soviet camp. Between the United States and Pakistan, there is a long-standing relationship here that needs to be rebuilt.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Related Issues: Middle East

First appeared in the Washington Times