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How to Deal with Dictators

Author: Peter Beinart
August 6, 2007
Time Magazine

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There are no good dictators.  But some are better than others. The best dictators permit freedom of expression, rule of law and economic growth, creating a democratic-minded middle class that eventually pushes them aside. Think South Korea. The worst dictators, by contrast, grind down civil society, breeding poverty and sectarian hatred and pulverizing all the institutions from which liberalism might grow. The worst dictators eventually leave too, but when they do, all hell breaks lose. Think Iraq.

One of the biggest challenges facing U.S. foreign policy today is how to make Pakistan’s military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, the best dictator he can be. That may sound like a dishonorable goal. In an ideal world, America would tell Musharraf that he’ll get no more aid unless he hands over power. The problem is that in Pakistan, the military has always held power, even when civilians are nominally in charge. And as former State Department official Daniel Markey notes in Foreign Affairs, many Pakistani officers distrust the U.S. because we cut off aid in the 1990s. Threatening to do so again would probably push Islamabad into the arms of its other big ally, China, and make it even less helpful in the struggle against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

The U.S. can’t sideline Musharraf, but we have some influence over how he rules. By Pakistani standards, his eight years in office haven’t been terrible. He has allowed some press freedom (including a Saturday Night Live-style comedy show that often lampoons him). And guided by his Prime Minister, former Citibank executive Shaukat Aziz, Pakistan’s economy has boomed. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that rather than strengthening Pakistan’s progressive middle class (the people we’d like to eventually supplant him) he has strengthened its Islamist radicals (the people we pray never do). Pakistani generals have a tradition of promoting jihadist militants, to use either as a club against regional enemies like India or as an excuse for retaining power. And Musharraf is no exception. In 2002, he manipulated parliamentary elections to hand Islamists control of two Pakistani provinces that border Afghanistan. By undermining Pakistan’s large, relatively secular parties, he has left mosques and madrasahs as the most potent vehicles for political expression. Musharraf talks a good game about liberalizing Pakistani society, but his choice of allies suggests he’s not serious. And little has been done.

This fall may be the U.S.’s best chance to help change that. Musharraf’s five-year term as President, given him by the Parliament whose election he rigged, is ending. New parliamentary elections are due by early 2008. If he rigs or cancels them, Pakistan could explode, and he’ll have to use brute force to hang on. That could further strengthen the Islamists, who feed on chaos, or prompt another coup, which could put a more anti-American general in charge.

A better option is for Washington to push Musharraf to make a deal with ex-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, the leader of Pakistan’s biggest political party, who has been in exile since 1999, facing corruption charges. Musharraf would have to cede some power, probably by resigning his powerful post as head of the army, but could remain President while Bhutto becomes Prime Minister. He could then afford to hold free elections, since an alliance with Bhutto would give him real support in Parliament. Such an arrangement still wouldn’t be democratic, and Bhutto’s previous stint as Prime Minister hardly inspires confidence in her management skills. But it would make Musharraf’s government more accountable and strengthen the secular parties that are Pakistan’s best long-term bulwark against Islamist rule. What’s more, an alliance with the more progressive Bhutto might bring the domestic reforms Pakistan needs, like improving its disastrous educational system and strengthening the rights of women.

In the best-case scenario, Pakistan would gradually become more like Turkey, whose powerful military meddles in politics but so far has tolerated the emergence of a moderately Islamic but fairly liberal ruling party, re-elected on July 22, which has strengthened civil liberties and the rule of law. Nothing would be worse for al-Qaeda and better for the U.S.

For Pakistan, even Turkish-style democracy is a long way off. But the U.S. needs to help it get there. If Pakistan doesn’t move in Turkey’s direction, it will probably move in the Taliban’s. And then America’s choices will be truly ugly. Musharraf may always be a dictator, but he needs to become a better one. Because if he doesn’t, what follows could be a lot worse.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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