By David Ignatius
Wednesday, November 7, 2007
JERUSALEM -- As we struggle to make sense of the current political crisis in Pakistan, it's useful to think back nearly 30 years to the wave of protests that toppled the shah of Iran and culminated in the Islamic Republic -- a revolutionary earthquake whose tremors are still shaking the Middle East.
The shah was America's friend, just like Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. He was our staunch ally against the bogeyman of that time, the Soviet Union, just as Musharraf has been America's partner in fighting al-Qaeda. The shah ignored America's admonitions to clean up his undemocratic regime, just as Musharraf has. And as the shah's troubles deepened, the United States hoped that moderate opposition leaders would keep the country safe from Muslim zealots, just as we are now hoping in Pakistan.
And yet the Iranian explosion came -- a firestorm of rage that immolated any attempt at moderation or compromise. A similar process of upheaval has begun in Pakistan -- with one terrifying difference: Pakistan has nuclear weapons.
The Iran analogy was made forcefully two weeks ago by Gary Sick, a Columbia professor who helped oversee Iran policy for the Carter administration during the time of the revolution. "There was no Plan B," Sick wrote in an online posting. He sees the same dynamic at work in Pakistan. "We have bet the farm on one man -- in this case Pervez Musharraf -- and we have no fall-back position, no alternative strategy in the event that does not work."
So ask yourself: What Iran policy would have made sense, in hindsight, given the ruinous consequences of the Iranian revolution? Should the United States have encouraged the shah to crack down harder against protesters and ride out the storm, as some hard-liners urged at the time? Or should it have moved more quickly to encourage a change of regime, after it became obvious the shah couldn't or wouldn't reform?
Even now, almost 30 years later, it's hard to know what we should have done. And perhaps that's the point.
Many Americans instinctively feel that the United States should have pushed sooner for reform -- and helped engineer a transition to a democratic Iran. We should have gotten ahead of the storm, the argument goes, before the Iranian movement for change was captured by followers of Ayatollah Khomeini who, it turned out, wanted to destroy the modern, secular state that was struggling to be born during the shah's tumultuous rule.
Advocates of benign intervention would take a similar line now in Pakistan. Musharraf's imposition of emergency rule last weekend was a shah-like act of desperation. A change of regime is coming in Pakistan, the argument goes, and we should work with responsible opposition leaders such as former prime minister Benazir Bhutto to encourage a political transition. Unless Musharraf agrees to go ahead with parliamentary elections planned for January, America should squeeze him by reducing its aid package of $150 million a month.
Reformist regime-change advocates would argue, further, that we're in better shape in Pakistan than we were in Iran. The Bush administration began pressuring Musharraf months ago to widen his political base by allowing Bhutto to return home. And many of the protesters in the streets of Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi this week aren't reactionary Islamists but middle-class lawyers. Their leader isn't the fanatical Osama bin Laden but the deposed chief justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry.
Yet even as we watch the birth pains of a better Pakistan, we know that al-Qaeda operatives are plotting to take advantage of the chaos. And we recognize, too, that if Musharraf is toppled, there is a new threat from those Pakistani nukes -- and even more, from the fissile material that would allow others to build nuclear weapons or dirty bombs.
The abiding truth, about Iran then and Pakistan now, is that outsiders don't understand the forces at work in these societies well enough to try to manipulate events. The disaster of Iran happened partly because of American meddling -- in installing the shah in the first place and then enabling his autocratic rule. Pakistan, too, has suffered over the years from too much U.S. intervention.
Pakistanis are in the streets this week protesting Musharraf's gross assault on democracy. I hope they succeed in creating a Pakistan that is more free and democratic. I pray that the reformers can work with the Pakistani military to suppress al-Qaeda and Taliban movements that would destroy any semblance of democracy in that country.
But changing Pakistan is a job for Pakistanis, and history suggests that the more we meddle, the more likely we are to get things wrong.