By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 11, 2007
CRAWFORD, Tex., Nov. 10 -- President Bush and his senior advisers offered Saturday perhaps their most extensive defense of Gen. Pervez Musharraf as an ally in the battle against Islamic extremists a week after the Pakistani president declared emergency rule and began a crackdown on human rights activists, lawyers and journalists.
Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made clear their continuing desire for Musharraf to hold elections and to resign from the Pakistani army, with Rice bluntly calling his assumption of emergency powers a "bad decision." But they mixed criticism with sympathy for what they termed Musharraf's past efforts to cultivate democracy and to help the United States go after al-Qaeda leaders in the border regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"President Musharraf, right after the attacks on September the 11th, made a decision, and the decision was to stand with the United States against the extremists inside Pakistan," Bush told reporters here after meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. "In other words, he was given an option: Are you with us, or are you not with us? And he made a clear decision to be with us, and he's acted on that advice."
Bush noted that several senior al-Qaeda leaders "have been brought to justice" and that "that would not have happened without President Musharraf honoring his word."
Bush spent last night and this morning at his ranch here in intensive consultations with Merkel on a variety of issues, especially his continuing drive to intensify the diplomatic and financial pressure on Iran over its nuclear activities. U.S. officials have considered Germany something of a weak link in this effort, but Merkel made clear that she is open to a new round of international sanctions and to possibly further reducing Germany's extensive commercial ties with Iran.
Bush was forceful in repeating several times his desire to solve the problem diplomatically, a nod to Merkel's evident distaste for any talk of military action.
"I'm deeply convinced that the diplomatic possibilities have not yet been exhausted," Merkel said through a translator.
The comments on Pakistan Saturday from Bush, Rice and national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley underscored that the administration does not appear willing to risk a break with Musharraf over his actions thus far, as troubling as they may be. Musharraf said this week that he plans to go ahead with parliamentary elections in February and indicated that he would step down from the army before being sworn in again as president, assuming the Pakistani Supreme Court certifies his election. Yet, he has also dismissed many of the country's judges, curbed the news media, rounded up opposition figures and generally sought to smash elements of Pakistan's civil society.
Briefing reporters after Saturday's meeting, Hadley seized on Musharraf's comments on elections and his plans to give up his uniform as an indication that the Pakistani president has followed through on U.S. pleas that he disclose his intentions about putting Pakistan on a path to full democracy. "President Musharraf has been responsive to calls from his own people for clarity on these subjects," Hadley said.
Rice, meanwhile, in an interview with the Dallas Morning News editorial board released yesterday, described Musharraf as "someone with whom you can talk and reason. He is someone who has tried to fight terrorism and has tried to unravel some of the extremist elements." She said the United States must "remain engaged" with Pakistan or risk the possibility of greater extremism, like what happened in the 1990s.
"It is interesting to me and important that, after several days, they did finally come out and unequivocally promise to have the elections -- and not a year from now, a few months from now. That's an important thing," Rice added.
Bush's meeting with Merkel at his Crawford ranch, a visit reserved for his closest international counterparts, was a sign of how much U.S.-German relations have improved since Bush feuded with Merkel's predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, over the Iraq war. The two leaders went out of their way to mute potential differences over Afghanistan and global warming. Merkel is battling German public opinion that opposes the presence of more than 3,000 German troops in Afghanistan, and she would like to see much more aggressive efforts to curb carbon dioxide emissions than those favored by Bush.
"I assured Angela that I care deeply about the issue," Bush said, referring to climate change. "The United States is willing to be an active participant and try to come up with solutions that bring comfort to people around the world; that it is possible to have the technologies necessary to deal with this issue without ruining our economies."
But Iran may be the biggest source of potential contention between the two countries, given Germany's extensive commercial interests in that country, as well as Merkel's concern that a timetable of steadily tougher sanctions could become a pathway to war. "From Merkel's standpoint, the less that is done is better," said Simon Serfaty, an authority on Europe at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Under pressure from the United States, Germany has been reducing trade with Iran over the past 20 months after that reached a high-water mark of 4.4 million euros in exports in 2005. Some of the reduction is coming as the government scales back export guarantees and exerts informal pressure on German companies to reduce investments in Iran out of concern that the situation there may be unstable.
Merkel said Germany "needs to look somewhat closer at the existing business ties with Iran," noting that she plans to talk with German companies again "on further possible reductions of those commercial ties."