In the course of a weekend, Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf has gone from a valued U.S. ally to a significant U.S. embarrassment. The leader President Bush fulsomely praised as “a strong defender of freedom and the people of Pakistan” has cracked down on both.
Ignoring personal pleas from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Musharraf suspended the constitution and declared a state of emergency, giving himself dictatorial powers, supposedly because of an imminent threat from radical Islamists allied with the Taliban and al-Qaida.
If so, he showed a bizarre way of combating that threat — jailing his political opponents and critical human-rights activists, imposing sweeping censorship of the press, especially TV, and firing the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court, it seems, was about to declare invalid the results of an election that had just named Musharraf to another five-year term as president. Musharraf took the additional precaution of postponing indefinitely parliamentary elections set for January.
The Bush administration’s position is that Musharraf, who took power in a military coup in 1999, should resign from the armed forces and run for office in free elections. Musharraf, within certain limits, has been an ally of the United States in fighting al-Qaida and the Taliban, and many Pakistani soldiers have died doing so.
In turn, Musharraf has been well rewarded — $10 billion in mostly military aid since 2001.
Now the Bush administration faces a painful dilemma with few good options.
Supporting Musharraf means ditching Bush’s oft-stated principle that democracy and freedom are the most effective deterrents to terrorism and extremism.
On the other hand, there’s the danger of seeing an unstable, nuclear-armed nation, a stronghold of radical Islamists and at any given time only a few steps away from war with India, collapse into chaos.
The Bush administration perhaps tipped its hand Sunday when it indicated that those billions of dollars in military aid would keep flowing despite Musharraf’s second military coup. A White House spokesman described Musharraf’s seizure of power as “a slight detour.”
Hoping that’s so now seems to be Bush administration policy, maybe its only policy.