Bringing Democracy to the Middle East Has Always Been an Illusion

Bush and Musharraf’s grand illusion
By Juan Cole

Democracy for Pakistan was never the deal — and as Musharraf’s latest power grab throws his nation into turmoil, Bush will gladly go along.

Nov. 6, 2007 | In the fall of 1999, as he campaigned for the presidency, George W. Bush was asked by a reporter to name the leader of Pakistan. Bush could not. He famously replied: “The new Pakistani general, he’s just been elected — not elected, this guy took over office. It appears this guy is going to bring stability to the country, and I think that’s good news for the subcontinent.” Although Bush didn’t know Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s name and was confused as to how he got into office, the soon-to-be American president was sanguine about the anti-democratic developments in Pakistan.

More than seven years later, Bush’s illusions about Musharraf — and any illusion of democracy in Pakistan — have been shattered by the dictator’s declaration of a state of emergency. Tantamount to a coup, Musharraf’s actions on Saturday have not only thrown Pakistan into turmoil but have also revealed the hypocrisy of Bush’s foreign policy, including the proclaimed goal of fostering freedom and the rule of law in the Muslim world.

At a press conference on Monday, Bush said of the weekend coup, “We expect there to be elections as soon as possible.” But while Bush admitted that Musharraf’s actions would “undermine democracy,” he insisted that the general is “a strong fighter” in the war on terror. That dual message was accompanied by the American president tepidly declining to say what he would do if Musharraf did not move toward elections. Also revealing was the fact that Bush had sent the weakest member of his team, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, out to warn Musharraf against the coup, indicating how little he was in reality worried about it. If he had been deeply anxious, he would have called the general himself. Many observers are viewing Musharraf’s coup as a major setback for Bush’s policy, but in fact it changes almost nothing.

Although the United States has given some $11 billion to Pakistan (mostly in military aid) since 2001, Bush needs Musharraf more than Musharraf needs the United States. The war in Afghanistan is a key reason: A major proportion of the war materiel for the 20,000 U.S. troops, and additional 20,000 NATO troops, in Afghanistan (a landlocked country) goes through Pakistan. U.S., British and Canadian troops on the front lines fighting a Taliban resurgence could be endangered if Pakistan were to cut off the flow of those supplies. On Monday, Rice appeared to back off from earlier warnings to Pakistan that a coup would jeopardize U.S. aid, saying that she doubted cooperation on the war on terror would be affected by Musharraf’s actions.

Musharraf, who was brought up in part in Turkey and is representative of the secular stratum of Pakistan’s middle class, is the Bush administration’s ideal ally. They point to his successes: Musharraf has moved a lot of fundamentalist officers out of positions of power, removing them from any authority over the country’s stockpile of nuclear bombs. Under his rule, Pakistani military intelligence has captured nearly 700 al-Qaida operatives in that country, including high-value figures such as Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks. And Pakistani cooperation was key in breaking up a plot in summer 2006 by Britons of Pakistani heritage to blow up airplanes flying from London to New York.

But the 1999 interview revealed Bush’s true stripes regarding the Pakistani dictator, and his knee-jerk support for authoritarianism over democracy. Bush was criticized then for applauding the overthrow of the democratically elected Nawaz Sharif government in the Oct. 12, 1999, military coup. His spokesperson at the time, Karen Hughes, said that Bush was encouraged by Musharraf’s promise that he would hold early elections, restore “stability” to Pakistan, and ease tensions between India and Pakistan. (In fact, Musharraf had been a notorious hawk on India and may in part have carried out the coup because he saw his civilian predecessor as too dovish toward New Delhi.) What the world did not then know was that President Bill Clinton had negotiated a deal not long before with Prime Minister Sharif whereby Pakistan would deploy special operations troops to capture Osama bin Laden. When Musharraf took power in fall of 1999, he refused to honor the deal, since the operation was unpopular with the military’s fundamentalist officers. Indeed, Bush was supporting a man who derailed the best chance the Clinton administration may have had to prevent Sept. 11.

Bush went on, of course, to talk a good game as president about democratizing the Middle East, but that never appears to have been more than a cover story for his projection of American power into the region. And now he is standing by Musharraf as the latter dismantles the façade of civil society institutions in Pakistan.

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