With the official shedding of his uniform, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has given the White House something to be thankful for. In an age when the public seems less likely than ever to suffer credibility gaps, his use of emergency state powers to combat opposition movements punched holes in the integrity of the Bush Administration’s foreign policy stance. After all, why would such supposedly vehement defenders and proponents of democracy continue to work with someone who seems to resemble an old school strongman? The current situation demonstrates the complexity of trying to foster a broad alliance in the name of promoting democracy and true freedom abroad.
The inescapable hypocrisy of working with dictators while advocating democracy increases skepticism of America’s intentions abroad and at home. When Musharraf invoked emergency state powers in order to combat the return of two opposition leaders after years of exile — Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto of the Muslim League and Pakistan People’s Party respectively — Pakistani people rose in protest. American pundits questioned how we could claim to be defending freedom and democracy if our allies behaved so; maybe we were more concerned with our own freedom and democracy than those of others.
Of course, American alliances have never been made because of ideological agreement alone. While some of our allies are clear democracies, and share the same Enlightenment-liberal heritage of human rights, we have not shied away from bringing dictators and strong-men into our orbit. From Pinochet to Chairman Mao to the Shah of Iran, a dictator in our pocket was better than a dictator on the loose. We have also not shied away from suffocating democracies for the sake of our own policy in Guatemala, Italy, Iran and Chile among others. But those are all examples of a past age, in the time of the Cold War, when Americans were more willing to listen to and agree with the government.
Since then, a lot has changed. The fall of the Soviet Union has removed the bad guy who often allowed us to overlook dichotomies between policy and ideals. The Internet has increased the ease of disseminating information and accelerated the national dialogue so that hypocrisies are pointed out more quickly and more often. Instances such as Watergate have inculcated skepticism of the official line into a sizeable amount of the American public.
The case of Musharraf shows a few problems with continuing this Cold War model in a post-Cold War world. While we don’t have the Soviet Union, the Bush Administration never ceases to remind us of the larger threat of terrorism. Bush addressed both sides of the coin when speaking on Musharraf’s latest move — that of stepping down as president of Pakistan. He both affirmed it as a step forward, and reinforced Musharraf’s importance as an ally. He mentioned that Musharraf needed to remove the emergency powers currently in place before the elections in order to truly engage democracy, but also said, “He has been an absolute reliable partner in dealing with extremists and radicals.”
Utility can definitely be the driving force behind Bush’s statements about encouraging democracy in Pakistan. Knowing how important Pakistan is to stability in Afghanistan, Bush needs to hedge his bets. Flexibility to pursue an alliance with whoever leads Pakistan plays a role in policy making. Should opposition grow strong enough to topple Musharraf, he doesn’t want to have a history of unswerving support for the old guard. Still, he can’t risk the present alliance and drop Musharraf altogether.
Yet, growing strength of opposition in Pakistan seems to be symptomatic of America’s dealings in the Middle East. Allies from within the Muslim community, especially those that do not conform to our stated ideals of democracy and freedom, have been accused of being puppets and not truly representing their followers (the rise of the Hamas, for instance, and extremism in Saudi Arabia). Of course, that’s because in times past, dictators allied with America were often puppet-like.
The complexity of the situation reinforces the importance of choosing allies based on ethics more than on utility. Pakistan demonstrates that the line between outright dictatorship and democracy can be a blurry one. It behooves us to support burgeoning democracy in Pakistan and elsewhere, even when the elected candidates might be opposed to explicit American policy goals. While we might succeed on the short term in having our intended ends met, in the long term dictators supported by America stir up anti-American resentment.
Alliances between democracies can be more difficult at times, because other countries may disagree with the American agenda. But in today’s world, an ongoing conversation is infinitely better than a schoolyard posse.
Dariush Nothaft is a senior in Saybrook College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays.