Counterpoint on Pakistan

In Slate, Lee Smith argues for an ideologically cohesive foreign policy strategy which sounds suspiciously like “nation-building.” He takes the Bush Administration, and particularly Secretary Rice, to task for sending mixed messages to the world about what we want them to do and how we want them to do it; and for failing to define “democracy.”

His argument is that democracy in Pakistan, as in any other nation-state, requires that there be the rule of law and strong enough governmental institutions so as to allow a democracy to function. No one but Musharraf has the strength to build such a society, and in order to do that, he must use his military power. What’s more, the military in Pakistan is the most secular of all the segments of that society, and the last thing we want is a less secular Pakistan (good point, that last one). In other words, “democracy” (however that term is defined) is an end result of a stabilized society, and not really our goal for foreign policy.

I’d agree with that to some extent. Whether our allies abroad are democratically-governed or not, our foreign policy objectives are first and foremost, that they support our strategic and military efforts; second, that they develop economically and become good trade partners, and (a very distant) third, that they generally respect human rights, or at least keep their human rights abuses discreet and moderately defensible. The development of European-style democracy as a form of government is simply one attribute of the third, and least important, of those foreign policy objectives. Smith correctly points out that Musharraf is providing us with the first and most important objective, namely, he is cooperating to a significant degree with U.S. military and strategic objectives for that region of the world by 1) not nuking India, 2) tolerating U.S. efforts to root out al-Qaeda and even doing some of that work himself, and 3) not permitting radical Islamists to take over the government there. Trade and human rights are insignificant in comparison to these concerns.

And democracy is only a good thing in our allies if the result of a democratic election there is a leadership that is more or less congruent to these other, more important interests. In other words, letting people in other countries choose their own leaders is a good thing, if they make the right choices.

Oddly, though, this is a “realist” analysis of the situation, but it winds up being critical of a lack of ideological coherence, which is the sort of thing one would expect from a neocon. But I think the real criticism is that the Bush administration, taking its cue from its leader, has failed to articulate things clearly.

The real problem is that by stomping down on the institutions that can foster the development of the rule of law (the judiciary), Musharraf may well be playing into the hands of the Islamists. By taking control of the courts and suspending Pakistan’s constitution in order to squelch militant Islamic extremists, he has driven the pro-democracy reformers (personified now in Benizar Bhutto) against him and forced them to stand side-by-side with the very religious fanatics he is trying to keep in check. The result may be that if and when there are elections, the result will be something like what happened with Palestine — a bungling of domestic policy by the allies of the U.S. will result in the people making a bad choice.

It is now more likely than ever that Pakistan will suffer an attempted revolution by Islamic extremists. This might be aimed directly at Musharraf and his junta; it might be the result of an alliance with Bhutto and her supporters, and a subsequent unwillingness by the religious extremists to share power with her once Musharraf has been set aside. But either way, that revolution looks like it’s coming, and its success would be a huge blow to U.S. interests in central Asia. Sadly, with the military already over-extended in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with talk of military activity against Iran, it does not seem there are any military assets left over for use in Pakistan should that become necessary.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.


  1. Maybe that’s what Musharef wants: a revolution by the Islamic extremists can be successfully squelched by his Army. Their elimination (by death during the squelching) aloows him to THEN acquiesce to Bush’s demands to allow elections and for democracy to be reintroduced.

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