By Michael Abramowitz and Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
President Bush yesterday offered his strongest support of embattled Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, saying the general "hasn't crossed the line" and "truly is somebody who believes in democracy."
Bush spoke nearly three weeks after Musharraf declared emergency rule, sacked members of the Supreme Court and began a roundup of journalists, lawyers and human rights activists. Musharraf's government yesterday released about 3,000 political prisoners, although 2,000 remain in custody, according to the Interior Ministry.
The comments, delivered in an interview with ABC News anchor Charles Gibson, contrasted with previous administration statements -- including by Bush himself -- expressing grave concern over Musharraf's actions. In his first public comments on the crisis two weeks ago, Bush said his aides bluntly warned Musharraf that his emergency measures "would undermine democracy."
The shift yesterday appeared part of a broader strategy to ease the crisis in Pakistan. Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte carried a terse message to Musharraf during talks last weekend, urging the general to step down as chief of the army. Now, after this strong personal show of support from the president, the Bush administration expects the general to shed his military uniform before the end of the month, an administration official said.
Several outside analysts and a key Democratic lawmaker expressed incredulity over Bush's comments and called them a sign of how personally invested the president has become in the U.S. relationship with Musharraf.
"What exactly would it take for the president to conclude Musharraf has crossed the line? Suspend the constitution? Impose emergency law? Beat and jail his political opponents and human rights activists?" asked Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a presidential candidate. "He's already done all that. If the president sees Musharraf as a democrat, he must be wearing the same glasses he had on when he looked in Vladimir Putin's soul."
Bush was asked in the interview if there is any line Musharraf should not cross. "He hasn't crossed the line. As a matter of fact, I don't think that he will cross any lines," Bush replied, according to an ABC transcript. ". . . We didn't necessarily agree with his decision to impose emergency rule, and . . . hopefully he'll get . . . rid of the rule. Today, I thought, was a pretty good signal, that he released thousands of people from jail."
Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, said that "it's hard to imagine how the administration will be able to achieve anything in Pakistan if the president is so disconnected from reality."
"Almost everyone in Pakistan who believes in George Bush's vision of democracy is in prison today," Malinowski said. "Calling the man who put them in prison a great democrat will only discredit America among moderate Pakistanis and give Musharraf confidence that he can continue to defy the United States because Bush will forgive anything he does."
Bush has closely linked his administration to Musharraf since the weeks after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when the Pakistani president sided with the United States in its drive to oust the Taliban from power in Afghanistan. Although the current crisis has prompted the administration to launch a review of its aid to Pakistan, officials said yesterday that they are looking favorably at continuing most economic and military aid, which has surpassed $10 billion since 2001.
Musharraf has provided extensive assistance to the United States in its efforts to seize high-profile al-Qaeda suspects, but his devotion to the fight has been increasingly questioned by some U.S. officials and outside experts. Musharraf "is not only not indispensable; he is a serious liability" to U.S. policy, a new report by the International Crisis Group said.
White House press secretary Dana Perino said in an e-mail message that the president was sincere in his comments to ABC. "He does believe that President Musharraf believes in democracy, and there is evidence to that fact based on the reforms he'd put in place over the last several years," she said. "Musharraf has made a mistake and took a detour -- we are hopeful that he will restore the constitution and get the country back to that path to democracy."
Some officials indicated that the view among many in the administration is that Musharraf may be able to survive the crisis and remain in power.
"Unless the opposition parties can mount some kind of street campaign, it looks like Musharraf will stay in power for the near future," said Stephen P. Cohen, a Brookings Institution scholar and an authority on South Asia. "It is now up to the generals. When you have no effective state, no rule of law, it's only people with guns who can remove a leader -- and that means the generals."
Husain Haqqani, a longtime adviser to former prime minister Benazir Bhutto who now teaches at Boston University, said Bush's comments yesterday suggest that "the president of the United States does not grasp the situation in Pakistan correctly," adding: "Musharraf's support and significance to the United States is overestimated by a White House that is bogged down by other concerns."
Biden said the onus is on the Pakistani leader: "Right now, it matters less what President Bush thinks and more what Musharraf does to put Pakistan on a democratic path."
In the interview with ABC News, conducted at Camp David, Bush disputed the suggestion that he has put too much faith in Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup.
"He's been a loyal ally in fighting terrorists. He's also advanced democracy in Pakistan," Bush said. "He has said he's going to take off his uniform. He's said there will be elections. Today he released prisoners, and so far I've found him to be a man of his word."