Pakistan may be reaching a crisis point. Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who is chief of both the country and the armed forces, is facing the most serious threat to his rule since he seized power in 1999. His high-handed suspension in March of the chief justice of the supreme court, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, has galvanized opposition from the urban middle-class that had hitherto acquiesced in his rule. On May 12, street protests got out of hand in Karachi, leaving 48 dead and contributing to a sense of worsening crisis. Mr. Musharraf has since tried to regain control by cracking down on independent media outlets and by jailing hundreds of opposition political activists, but the protests continue.
The Bush administration is reaching a decision point: Will it continue to provide unqualified support for Mr. Musharraf on the grounds that he is too valuable an ally to give up in the Global War on Terror? Or will it pull the rug out from under him and insist on a transition to civilian democratic rule? In this matter as in so many others, George W. Bush should ask himself the WWRD question: What Would Reagan Do?
As it happens, Ronald Reagan confronted a crisis remarkably similar to this one 21 years ago involving another pro-American dictator in another strategically important country. Ferdinand Marcos had ruled the Philippines, home to two of America’s biggest overseas military bases, by martial law since 1972. He had loyally stood by the United States and fought against a communist insurgency, but his rule started to unravel when opposition leader Benigno Aquino returned to his homeland in 1983 and was assassinated on the tarmac.
Evidence pointed to conspiracy involving Gen. Fabian Ver, commander of the Philippine armed forces. But a three-judge panel acquitted Ver and 25 others, and Marcos promptly reinstated him. He then shamelessly stole the 1986 presidential election from Benigno’s widow, Corazon Aquino. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest. “People power” was supplemented by a rebellion within the Philippine armed forces. But Marcos still had the loyalty of much of the army, and was prepared to use it to hold onto power by force — unless the U.S. intervened.
President Reagan confronted a difficult choice. He felt personally loyal to Marcos and was afraid of the consequences of toppling him, having little confidence in Ms. Aquino’s leadership abilities. Reagan abhorred the way Jimmy Carter had abandoned the Shah of Iran in 1979, and didn’t want to make the same mistake.
But his Secretary of State, George Shultz, had seen early on that Marcos’s legitimacy was eroding. “I became increasingly convinced that Marcos was the problem, not the solution,” Mr. Shultz wrote in his memoirs. The secretary of state had refused to call for the dictator’s ouster, but he had insisted that the Philippines hold elections — demands that Marcos had finally agreed to.
The crisis came to a head on Sunday, Feb. 23, 1986, as Marcos was massing troops in Manila to crack down on the post-election protests. The top-level National Security Planning Group met that afternoon in the White House Situation Room to decide whether to continue backing him. Only White House chief of staff Don Regan offered any support for Marcos. The rest of the foreign-policy team said his day was done. The president was reluctantly won over. He authorized his friend, Sen. Paul Laxalt, to call Marcos and convey the message. By Tuesday, the dictator and his gaudy wife Imelda were on their way to exile aboard a U.S. Air Force jet.
This was no aberration. Even while protests were erupting in the Philippines, a similar situation was occurring in Haiti. Here, too, another pro-American dictator — Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier — was sinking. And here, too, the Reagan administration refused to throw him a lifeline, forcing him into exile.
The Reagan administration also played a role in getting the military regime in South Korea to give up power and hold free elections in 1987. The same year, with American encouragement, Taiwan’s Chiang Ching-kuo ended martial law and began the transition to democracy. The following year, again with U.S. backing, Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet held a referendum, which he lost, bringing his long reign to an end.
All these actions were taken notwithstanding the very real risk, at a time when the Cold War was still going strong, of what would follow in the wake of pro-American strongmen. Back then, just as today, lots of “realists” made the better-the-devil-you-know argument. (Henry Kissinger wrote an op-ed expressing “grave concerns” about Marcos’s overthrow.) But what Reagan and especially Mr. Shultz realized was that giving a blank check to dictators was a bad deal. Sooner or later, it would lead to an explosion that would make an anti-American regime — of the kind that arose in Nicaragua and Iran in 1979 — more, not less, likely. The best way to prevent such a disaster was by pushing for civil-society reforms culminating in free elections, something that previous administrations failed to do with Somoza or the Shah.
The choice is made more difficult in the case of Pakistan because, unlike the Philippines or South Korea, it possesses nuclear weapons. Our ultimate nightmare is for those weapons to fall into the hands of Osama bin Laden’s allies. But that is extremely unlikely. The coalition of religious parties, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, won only 12% of the seats in the legislative assembly in 2002, even though Mr. Musharraf hindered more secular parties from competing. There is no reason to think it is any more popular today. The two main opposition parties, the Pakistan People’s Party led by Benazir Bhutto and the Pakistan Muslim League led by Nawaz Sharif, have their own shortcomings, including corruption and a history of dealings with Islamic radicals. But they represent the broad middle of Pakistani society, not the extremist fringe.
Moreover, Mr. Musharraf has talked a better game than he has delivered. He has taken at least $10 billion in American subsidies since 9/11, and in return he has sent his troops to fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban. But he has also struck deals with tribal authorities in South Waziristan, North Waziristan and Bajaur that essentially turn over those vital border regions to Taliban control. No wonder terrorism in Afghanistan is exploding. Taliban fighters receive training and support in Pakistan, possibly still from their historic patrons in the Inter-Services Intelligence Agency which reports to none other than Mr. Musharraf. There have even been a number of incidents in recent months of Pakistani troops providing covering fire from their side of the border for Taliban militants assaulting Afghan army positions. Mr. Musharraf has been useful, but he is either unwilling or unable to do enough to combat the terrorists in his country.
There is no need for President Bush to call for his ouster at this point, any more than Reagan called for Marcos’s ouster early on. What he should do — what Reagan did in the Philippines — is to insist that the constitutional process play itself out. That means that, if he wants U.S. aid to continue, Mr. Musharraf should give up either the presidency or his post as army chief and allow free elections in October that could be contested by all legitimate political parties.
Reagan’s words at Moscow State University in 1988 still ring true today: “Democracy is the standard by which governments are measured.” Mr. Musharraf is not living up to that standard.
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