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Where We Went Wrong In Pakistan

By Michael Gerson
Wednesday, November 21, 2007

President Bush's democracy agenda, the argument goes, is radical, hopeless, failed, dangerous and destabilizing. And he is a hypocrite for not applying it vigorously enough in Pakistan; the administration, it seems, should be more principled and energetic in pursuing a discredited foreign policy. But perhaps the need for freedom is not so discredited after all.

Pakistan has always been among the hardest of the hard cases when it comes to democracy -- with its volatile combination of military rule, borderland terrorist havens and the Bomb. In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, few questioned the need for cooperation with President Pervez Musharraf in the Afghan campaign or the fight against al-Qaeda. And Pakistani cooperation was real, even though, as one administration official now recalls, "everyone knew they could have done more."

Immediately after Musharraf's imposition of emergency rule this month, the options were also limited. The administration could have urged the Pakistani military to overthrow Musharraf -- or pressured him to get back on track by restoring civil liberties, taking off his uniform and conducting quick, fair elections. President Bush took the latter course -- and would have been attacked as impulsive and intrusive if he had pushed for immediate regime change.

It is the years between Sept. 11 and the present that deserve more scrutiny. Early in this period there was a significant internal push at the White House to expand democracy-promotion efforts in Pakistan, to encourage party-building, modern electoral systems and the rule of law. But this initiative got little traction and was dwarfed by billions of dollars in military assistance to the government. "We should have pushed harder over the years," says one senior Bush official, "because, in the end, we need the people to be anti-extremist, not just General Musharraf." Stronger democratic institutions would come in handy right about now.

The current debate on Pakistan is a contest of historical analogies. Is Musharraf more like Ferdinand Marcos, the Filipino dictator deposed in favor of a democracy? Or is he the shah of Iran, whose fall resulted in a radical, anti-American regime?

It is Musharraf's own view that is most instructive. According to one report, he mentions a third ruler as his model -- Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak has survived by presenting America with a choice: his own oppressive, military rule or the triumph of the Islamists -- the pharaoh or the fanatics. And he has done his best to guarantee that these are the only choices by destroying moderate, democratic opposition and forcing most dissent into the radical mosque.

Musharraf seems to be on the same path. While talking about fighting radicalism, his real energy has been devoted to imprisoning and harassing his democratic opponents. As in Egypt, this approach has elevated the Islamists. Polling by the nonprofit group Terror Free Tomorrow shows broad Pakistani support for democracy, coupled with considerable sympathy for radical groups that oppose the military regime. In the long run, propping up favorable dictators to fight terrorism causes a backlash.

Fortunately, there are options in Pakistan beyond the pharaoh or the fanatics -- responsible senior leaders of the army and well-known democratic leaders. Additional pressure on Musharraf is not likely to result in an Islamist revolution. So it would make sense to cut aid to Pakistan if Musharraf does not back off from emergency rule -- not humanitarian aid, or even counterterrorism aid, but military aid not directly tied to the fight against terrorists. This would give the army a stake in Pakistan's return to democracy.

The Pakistani crisis is important for its own sake, but it is also a warning. Eventually, we will see street protests and crackdowns in Egypt -- perhaps when Mubarak passes from the scene. And the same question will arise: Have we done enough to encourage political alternatives to Islamist groups? On the current course, the answer will be "no."

The democracy agenda has suffered by its association with Iraq, but it is hardly radical or messianic. Republican and Democratic presidents have generally believed that our nation benefits from the spread of free trade, economic development, self-government, minority and women's rights, and the rule of law. Now it is even more urgent to encourage liberal forces that might someday compete with radical Islam for the future of strategically important states. This does not require immediate, destabilizing elections or universal regime change. It does require a mature, two-track relationship with oppressive nations -- recognizing current realities while applying constant pressure for hopeful change.

As we found in the Cold War, and are finding again, this kind of democratic progress seems incredible -- until it becomes irreplaceable.

Michael Gerson is the author of "Heroic Conservatism." His e-mail address is michaelgerson@cfr.org.

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