A frustrated and distracted U.S. government kept quietly to the sidelines yesterday in the face of a crisis of democracy in troubled Pakistan, one of America's staunchest allies in the Third World.
Although a once-vaunted experiment in democracy appeared badly shattered there, neither White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater nor State Department spokesman Margaret Tutwiler brought up the subject at their daily briefings. Nor did any reporter ask about Pakistan at the hectic sessions, dominated by the Iraq-Kuwait and Liberian crises.
Later, State Department spokesman Nancy Beck issued the classic diplomatic hands-off statement. "A constitutional change in government is an internal matter for the people in Pakistan to decide," she said. "U.S. support of further democratic devlopment in Pakistan has been repeated many times."
"What can we do about Pakistan?" asked a Bush administration official privately. The decision by the Pakistani president to dissolve the government of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was technically permissible under the nation's constitution, though questionable for the interests of democracy.
Moreover, American officials had a difficult time bemoaning the blows to democracy in Pakistan since they have long disparaged Bhutto's ability to govern. Just a few months ago, a U.S. official insisted the greatest political threat to Bhutto came from Bhutto herself.
She has failed to deal effectively with the gnawing problems of the impoverished country, and the nation has suffered corruption, a rash of kidnappings and a sharp increase in other violent crime.
Bhutto's support of Moslem separatists in Kashmir also led to a tense confrontation with India.
Asked about the prospects for future democracy and stability, the official replied only, "We are watching it closely."
"I would describe it as a quasi-coup," said Peter Galbraith, an Asia expert in Washington who attended both Harvard and Oxford universities with the 37-year-old Bhutto. "Under the constitutional process in Pakistan, the president should have permitted a vote of confidence. That would have been the legitimate, constitutional way to do it.
"I've just been in touch with Benazir by phone," Galbraith said. "She is afraid that the new elections will not take place on October 24th as promised. Her house is surrounded by military troops. Her papers have been seized."
Bhutto's father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was deposed as prime minister by a military coup in 1977 and was executed two years later.
Galbraith said that although Bhutto was not frightened, "She is very concerned about the situation. But she has been through so much that I wouldn't say she was worried about her safety."
Since the military dictator Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq died in a mysterious plane crash in 1988, the United States has been a strong supporter of the democratic electoral process that brought Bhutto to power 20 months ago as the first woman leader of a Moslem nation.