When it comes to being “our S.O.B.,” Pakistani president Perez Musharraf has the “S.O.B.” part down. We just wish we could have more confidence in the “our.”
Musharraf declared a state of emergency over the weekend that brought back memories of the coup that took him to power in 1999. In the context of Pakistani political history, this move isn’t shocking — it’s the norm. Pakistan isn’t a failed state, but it is a failure as a state; it has never managed to create a stable constitutionalist politics. The latest constitutional crisis has been brewing since Musharraf suspended the head of the country’s politicized supreme court earlier this year, and was probably fated to come to an unfortunate end once the court — bizarrely — said it would rule on Musharraf’s eligibility to stand as a presidential candidate after he had already won reelection in early October. (His victory was the outcome of a deeply flawed vote in the legislature.) It was the possibility that the court might rule against him which prompted Musharraf to act, although he justified his strong-arm tactics by pointing to Pakistan’s growing instability.
That instability is deeply alarming, and the primary U.S. interest in Pakistan is that Musharraf — whether he is ruling constitutionally or not — act to control it. Since his initial crackdown on Islamic militants in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 — a crackdown that came under extreme diplomatic pressure from the U.S. — Musharraf’s effort has been maddeningly on-and-off. The Pakistani army has sustained real losses fighting the Taliban in the tribal areas (1,000 killed over the last six years). But the government has also cut ineffectual peace deals with Taliban-allied tribal leaders and, as a recent Newsweek cover story convincingly documents, allowed Islamic militants to establish crucial beachheads in Pakistan’s urban areas.
The U.S. should make clear to Musharraf that it is willing to forgive a lot, so long as the Pakistani government shows a commitment to the anti-Islamist campaign that has long been lacking. If Musharraf is determined to govern for now as dictator, we should at least expect him to be an effective dictator acting in our interests.
On the other hand, the Bush administration has to continue to try to save Musharraf from himself, in a delicate diplomatic balancing act. To get the upper hand over the militants over the long run, Musharraf needs a broad base of political support. Over the last six months, he has managed not only to lose ground to the Islamists, but to isolate himself politically. This is why the deal that the administration brokered between Musharraf and opposition leader Benazir Bhutto made sense. We have no illusions about Bhutto, whose government was corrupt and incompetent, but she gives Musharraf an opportunity to widen his political support beyond the army. The fall of the Shah in Iran is remembered mostly as a failure of the Carter administration, but the Shah did much to seal his own fate by alienating every element in Iranian society that might otherwise have been inclined to back him against the revolution. Musharraf would do well to heed his lesson.
So we should encourage Musharraf to keep his state of emergency short and try eventually to salvage his deal with Bhutto, while keeping our eye on the most important ball — a campaign against the Islamists who are a threat to Pakistan, to neighboring Afghanistan, and to our own security. It’s a region where, unfortunately, S.O.B.s of all varieties aren’t in short supply.