Beating the retreat on democracy

Gulf News, December 13, 2004

More than a year has gone by since President George W Bush declared promotion of democracy in the Muslim world as one of the key objectives of US foreign policy in the ‘greater Middle East’. The US went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq partly to create models for pluralist democracies for Muslim states.

Torn between the demands of realpolitik and its vision of changing the world, Bush’s team is consistently opting for compromises on both. The vision of a democratic Muslim world is being sacrificed to accommodate undemocratic Muslim rulers allied to the US. The gap between Washington’s pro-democracy rhetoric and pro-status quo policies is often illustrated best by America’s complex relationship with Pakistan’s military establishment. During the recent White House meeting between President Bush and General Musharraf, the American President spoke of the need for building democracy in the Palestinian territory but not for changing things in Pakistan. President Bush met Musharraf on a Saturday, dragging his entire foreign policy and national security team out of their homes over a weekend. This was ostensibly an acknowledgment of Pakistan’s key role in the war against terrorism and of Musharraf’s contribution in making that role possible.

Pretending that he was meeting a democratic leader, President Bush chose to define what a Palestinian democracy should look like. He called for “a world effort to help the Palestinians develop a state that is truly free: one that’s got an independent judiciary; one that’s got a civil society; one that’s got the capacity to fight off the terrorists; one that allows for dissent; one in which people can vote.” Most of those criteria are not met in Pakistan.

General Musharraf seized power in a coup, purged the Supreme Court, arbitrarily amended the constitution and has never stood for election in a contested campaign. It is true that General Musharraf allows a fair amount of dissent in Pakistan but that amounts to meeting one criterion out of the several set forth in President Bush’s definition of a Palestinian democracy. One understands that international relations cannot be subject purely to ideals, including the demand that all nations accept one system of governance. But for any foreign policy to be effective it must be credible. The Bush administration’s mantra of promoting democracy in the Muslim world is one of those policies that simply will not be credible if allies such as General Musharraf are allowed to redefine democracy. The United States will have to tone down its rhetoric of democracy promotion or at least find a balance between maintaining alliances of convenience and its stated higher moral purpose. The US could demand reform while retaining alliances dictated by strategic considerations. For example, I doubt if General Musharraf would have walked out of his alliance with the US if Bush had reminded him that he is not fulfilling conditions for democratic development.

President Bush’s reluctance to nudge General Musharraf on the subject of democracy is attributed to the US need for Pakistani cooperation, especially in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. But here too the law of diminishing returns appears to be in play. Musharraf is beginning to acknowledge that he and his intelligence services may not have the crucial role in finding bin Laden they have been assumed to have. ‘‘We don’t know where he is,’’ Musharraf said during his stopover in Washington, which was the latest in several mutually contradictory comments he has made on the subject.

According to the memoirs of General Tommy Franks, the CENTCOM commander at the time, Musharraf had told him soon after the beginning of American military operations in Afghanistan that Pakistani intelligence would know if and when bin Laden crosses the Afghan-Pakistan border. Then on December 24, 2001, General Musharraf told The China Daily: ‘‘Maybe he is dead because of all the operations that have been conducted, the bombardment of all the caves that have been conducted, there’s a great possibility that he may have lost his life there.’’ He also said, ‘‘He is not in Pakistan; that we are reasonably sure, we cannot be 100 per cent sure, but we have sealed the borders between Afghanistan and Pakistan’’ and stuck with the ‘‘he is dead’’ assertion through much of 2002. After that he repeatedly told interviewers that even if bin Laden was alive, he could not be in Pakistan. That position changed in an interview with the BBC on September 11, 2003. In that interview, General Musharraf said, ‘‘I feel that he is alive, yes because of the various information and intelligence that have come up now. But to guess whether he’s in Pakistan or Afghanistan, the possibility exists he is shifting places, shifting bases on both sides.’’ That reply was repeated several times until the middle of 2004. Only in September 2004 did Musharraf tell CNN, ‘‘I don’t know where he is. I wish I did.’’

Last week in Washington, the General was interviewed again by CNN. In that interview Musharraf conceded that he was ‘‘confused’’ about bin Laden’s whereabouts. From the definition of democracy to the likely hiding place of America’s most wanted terrorist, why is there significant confusion in the US-Pakistan alliance?