The Shah of Iran. Augusto Pinochet in Chile. The Somoza regime in Nicaragua. Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The House of Saud in Saudi Arabia.
All were funded at some point, both with arms and money, by the United States. All have repressed democratic reform. Most have been accused of human rights abuses. Fifteen of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers were Saudi. And the United States went to war with Saddam Hussein twice in as many decades.
To say that the United States has a history of putting its eggs in the wrong basket in terms of foreign diplomacy is a bit of an understatement. So it is especially alarming that the United States is taking such a passive stance toward the situation with Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan.
General Musharraf assumed military rule of Pakistan in a 1999 coup and has maintained rule over the country as army chief and self-declared head of government. Ostensibly Musharraf was going to assume temporary control after ousting Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, with whom Musharraf disagreed on policy over the Indian Kashmir region. Musharraf did promise to restore full democracy by 2002.
Earlier this year, Pakistan’s Supreme Court hinted that it would bar Musharraf from serving a second five-year term as president if he didn’t resign from the military. In response Musharraf declared martial law and fired the chief justice. The newly constituted government, packed with Musharraf cronies, dismissed the petition.
It is troubling, then, that the most important diplomats in the United States government express nothing but patience with Musharraf. While White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said that the restoration of democracy should be done “immediately,” White House policy makers have taken a decidedly more understated approach.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, while acknowledging that “it is not a perfect situation,” has said that United States aide to Pakistan is “a good expenditure of funding.” Musharraf aides have said the dictator hasn’t received any protest calls from George Bush or senior diplomats. Minister for Information Tariq Azim Khan said, “[Americans] would rather have a stable Pakistan … than have more democracy.”
Musharraf has used Islamist insurgents as scapegoats for his power grab, saying that the declared state of emergency allows for greater latitude in fighting anti-government militancy.
Since the emergency declaration, however, the Pakistani government has spent more time dealing with political opponents than militants.
In fact, the government continues to lose control in the unruly northwest, the very area where Musharraf proposed to crack down. Many Pakistanis there view the struggle against militants as “America’s war.”
While Bush and the neoconservative movement extol the virtues of global democracy, true democratic movements have taken a back seat to the goals of the “war on terror.” Though we must be careful to make sure that any Pakistani government opposes al Qaeda, we must also make sure not to repeat the mistakes that we made leading to the Iranian Revolution and the fall of the Shah.
Two sides opposed the Shah in the Iranian Revolution: pro-Western leftists and students and religious fundamentalists. You might wonder how two totally disparate groups aligned, but the answer isn’t as complicated as you might think. Simply, when dissent is outlawed, anti-system opposition is legitimized.
This materialized in Iran in a government massacre of 70 students on Jan. 9, 1978. The students were protesting the Shah’s government, as well as attacks on the Ayatollah Khomeini, one of the most outspoken critics of the Shah. At that point, the two schools of dissenting thought merged, as there was no outlet for the dissent in the political sphere.
We run the same risk in Pakistan. As we hope that Musharraf is going to quell al Quaeda and Taliban insurgents in his country, we overlook democratic reform movements. While a full democracy in Pakistan may give some representation to militant elements, it is far better to allow those views into the political spectrum, where they may be moderated to an extent.
As things stand in Pakistan now, there is no loyal opposition. There is only Musharraf and those who oppose him.
And while Musharraf has promised to hold elections in January and promised to resign as chief of the army and promised to end martial law, he has lied before – most specifically in promising to restore democracy five years ago.
As the government in Islamabad comes under attack from moderates, including lawyers who oppose Musharraf’s sacking of the state’s chief justice, we must be careful not to make the mistake of supporting the status quo of supporting a dictator.
Tom Nardi is a senior political science major from Philadelphia, Pa. He can be reached at [email protected]