Bush Urges Pakistani Leader to Hold Elections
Tuesday, November 6, 2007
President Bush called on Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, yesterday to hold elections and resign his military position as soon as possible, while his administration faced a looming battle with lawmakers on Capitol Hill pushing to limit aid until Musharraf restores constitutional rule.
The comments were the first from Bush since Musharraf declared emergency rule and suspended constitutional rule on Saturday. They underscored how the administration is struggling to balance a drive for democracy in the Muslim world with what it considers Musharraf's support in the fight against al-Qaeda.
Even as Bush said Musharraf's actions "would undermine democracy," he also emphasized that the Pakistani president "has been a strong fighter against extremists and radicals."
Bush refused to speculate about the future of U.S. assistance for Pakistan, which has totaled more than $10 billion since 2001. Administration officials said they are beginning to review the various elements of the aid package but made clear that they hope to coax Musharraf on a democratic path without a dramatic reduction in assistance that they consider crucial in fighting terrorism.
"What we think we ought to be doing is using our various forms of influence at this point in time to help a friend who we think has done something ill-advised to try and get back on a course [of] greater freedom, democracy in that country," a top administration official said at a White House briefing. The official said the administration learned early last week that Musharraf was considering emergency rule and repeatedly urged him against it.
The president spoke in the Oval Office after a private meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The White House had been hoping to focus on resolving Turkey's concerns about Kurdish rebels staging attacks against Turkey from inside northern Iraq, but it found itself struggling to tamp down a new crisis that threatens another key administration priority: the fight against Islamic extremists along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Still, administration officials said they are hopeful that weeks of aggressive diplomacy, culminating in yesterday's meeting, may head off the possibility of a cross-border military operation by Turkey against the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK.
"PKK is a terrorist organization," Bush said. "They're an enemy of Turkey, they're an enemy of Iraq, and they're an enemy of the United States. We have talked about how we can work together to protect ourselves from the PKK." Erdogan told reporters later that he was "happy" with his meeting with Bush.
On Capitol Hill, both Republicans and Democrats yesterday called for the administration to reconsider economic and military aid to Pakistan, which has become one of the largest recipients of U.S. assistance since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that handles funding for Pakistan, said that Musharraf had made a "colossal blunder" and that U.S. aid should be suspended until constitutional order, civil liberties and judicial independence are restored.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) did not go that far, but she sharply criticized the White House. "For too long, President Musharraf failed to confront effectively his growing unpopularity," she said. "The Bush administration enabled Musharraf's delusion by ignoring his undemocratic acts and lack of internal support in exchange for his assistance in efforts against terrorism."
The administration is seeking $785 million in fiscal 2008 for Pakistan. Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said that the primary program likely to be reviewed involves $300 million for military equipment, $10.2 million for counterproliferation and $2 million for training. An interagency review of this aid was launched yesterday.
In a telephone conversation yesterday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Musharraf that his move was "deeply disturbing," according to a senior U.S. official. But she spent much of the conversation probing his longer-terms plans, as Washington tries to assess how much pressure to apply on Islamabad, the source said.
Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte is scheduled to testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee tomorrow, and congressional officials informed the State Department that they want specific details of the U.S. response to Musharraf -- and not simply talk of a policy review of American aid, according to congressional sources.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said yesterday that while all assistance to Pakistan will be reviewed, the United States will remain "mindful not to do anything that would undermine ongoing counterterrorism efforts." Speaking to reporters during a trip to China, he said Pakistan remains "a key partner in the war on terror."
Indeed, some U.S. officials believe the United States needs Musharraf more than he needs the United States. "We're so invested in counterterrorism strategy in Pakistan's tribal areas -- and aid is the only means available to counter the growing al-Qaeda presence there -- so it limits the options we have available," said one State Department official not authorized to speak publicly.
Bush does face one short-term choice on Pakistan: Congressional sources said he is due to decide within 10 days whether to provide a waiver to a law that prevents aid to a country in which a democratically elected government has been overthrown by the military. Musharraf came to power in a 1999 coup. During a Hill briefing yesterday by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State John A. Gastright, congressional staffers made clear that a presidential waiver after Musharraf's latest actions could meet resistance, some sources said.
Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson contributed to this report.