Strange bedfellows: Musharraf the American

“He broke laws, he violated the Constitution, he usurped arbitrary power, he trampled individual liberties,” President Bush said the other day, denouncing General Pervez Musharraf, who had just declared Pakistan to be in a state of emergency.

Hold on a minute — I seem to have gotten my notes confused. Now, this is embarrassing. It was actually Musharraf himself who uttered those words, referring to none other than our own President Lincoln and his suspension of civil liberties during the Civil War. Musharraf, it turns out, is no “petty and cruel dictator,” like He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named over in the Axis of Evil. He’s just your average hero, doing whatever it takes to guide his country through rough times even at the risk of looking — well, petty and cruel.

Musharraf’s decision to portray himself as a latter-day Lincoln gets right to the point of one of the trickier aspects of the unfolding debacle in Pakistan: that is, how the United States will respond to a crucial ally’s oppressive and illegal crackdown on domestic political opposition.

Two weeks ago, I wrote on this page about the crisis in Myanmar, which also hinges on a government’s desire to bolster its own power by suspending elections and suppressing the democratic process. Characterizing the opposing sides of that conflict is easier than telling the hero apart from the villain in a comic book face-off. The power-hungry military junta brutalized a peaceful and unquestionably innocent population of monks. Our government rightfully responded by condemning those in power.

What makes Pakistan a difficult and potentially catastrophic situation is not Musharraf’s out-and-out wickedness. It’s his craftiness. By manipulating democratic rhetoric — Bush’s greatest weakness — in his favor, Musharraf is sticking to the pretense of shared values even as he does everything in his power to flout them. After all, it’s hard to disagree with Abraham Lincoln.

There are certainly more fitting, and more unfavorable, comparisons that Musharraf could have drawn between himself and other leaders who have once been in his position. Watching Musharraf disband the Supreme Court, arrest lawyers and judges and send in the military to crush student protests, it is hard to think of anyone but Indira Gandhi, who declared her own state of emergency in India in 1975. Like Musharraf, Gandhi faced serious internal political challenges. Like Musharraf, she responded to these challenges by suspending elections and arresting leaders of the opposition. Like Musharraf, Gandhi’s emergency was spurred in large part by a disagreement with the judiciary over her government’s legitimacy, and, like Musharraf, she temporarily solved the problem by simply declaring the judicial system unlawful.

As far as Musharraf abides by the l’etat, c’est moi model of government, it’s fair to say that he, like Lincoln before him, is doing everything in his power to make sure that his country does not succumb to division. Just as Lincoln could not imagine a United States without the South, Musharraf clearly cannot imagine a Pakistan without himself.

Still, Musharraf need not have looked so far back into history to find an American model that justified his actions. If he had been feeling more gutsy, he could have drawn an analogy between his decision to arrest prominent lawyers and Bush’s own involvement in the Alberto Gonzales prosecutor purge.

When Musharraf addressed the United States to explain his actions, he said, “Please don’t expect your level of democracy. Give us time, don’t demand your level of civil rights.” Bush, too, has made it explicitly and repeatedly clear that in this time of war, Americans have been greedy and impractical in expecting to maintain their own standard level of democracy. Given the suspension of due process at Guantanamo Bay, Condoleeza Rice must have missed the irony when she said that Pakistan must achieve “a quick return to constitutional law.”

Musharraf has acted as a despot in a way that Bush never can and never will. Even so, the embattled Musharraf and the embattled Bush are really not so different from each other. Musharraf has simply made explicit the frightening truth that Bush has suggested time and time again: We are all living in a state of emergency, and should lower our standards of freedom accordingly.

Alexandra Schwartz is a junior in Saybrook College. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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