If anyone in the Muslim world still believed in the Bush administration’s historic promise to support democracy over political expediency, those hopes are being shattered with the crisis unfolding in Pakistan.
If ever there was a clear-cut case for the administration to put action behind its rhetoric, this is it. And yet Washington is standing behind Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, even after he imposed emergency rule, suspended the country’s constitution, muzzled the media and continues to round up hundreds of political opponents.
In June 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the world that the United States would no longer tolerate repressive regimes in the name of keeping political stability. “For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East — and we achieved neither,” she said at the American University in Cairo. “Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.”
For a brief moment, Rice’s message resonated in the Middle East. It was a few months after the purple fingers of Iraq’s first parliamentary election, and in Lebanon a popular revolt had succeeded in dislodging years of Syrian military and political domination. It was a ripe moment, when the United States could have encouraged some genuine change.
But things fell apart when Washington confronted its first test: In late 2005 and into 2006, a small group of Egyptian judges challenged the undemocratic regime of President Hosni Mubarak. The United States stood by silently while Mubarak crushed public protests, and the Arab world understood, correctly, that Washington had given up on democracy.
When the United States continues supporting autocrats like Musharraf, against the will of their people, then it loses much of its leverage to demand reform from other repressive regimes like Iran and Syria. Even more importantly, favoring stability over democracy will come back to haunt America in the long term.
Washington has supported repressive regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia for decades. These are also the places that spawned the top leaders of Al Qaeda: Osama bin Laden is a Saudi, and his top lieutenant, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, is Egyptian.
Of course, we will never know whether these men would have attacked America regardless of its support of the governments they were trying to destroy. But it did not help. Both men at first turned against the dictators at home, and then — realizing that the United States was propping up these regimes — they targeted the “far enemy.”
In Pakistan, the Bush administration now has an opportunity to show the Arab and Muslim worlds that it can change. But so far, President Bush has only issued tepid warnings to Musharraf. The administration has given no sign of cutting military aid to Pakistan, whose military the U.S. has subsidized with $10 billion since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, in exchange for Musharraf’s help in the “war on terror.”
Musharraf — who often delivers his speeches sitting under a portrait of Pakistan’s secularist founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah — claims that he is fighting extremism. Yet Musharraf’s police are rounding up not militants but lawyers and opposition politicians. Like Mubarak, he is trying to quash an independent judiciary: the Supreme Court was on the verge of invalidating his unconstitutional election as president. By destroying any viable opposition — those who carry hope of a vibrant civil society that could foster democracy — Musharraf is actually encouraging militancy.
Islamic militant groups emerged in Pakistan in the late 1970s, when then military ruler Gen. Muhammad Zia ul-Haq began a campaign to Islamize his society. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Pakistan became the staging ground for Islamic guerrillas fighting the Soviet occupation. The United States funneled nearly $3 billion in weapons and aid to the militants through Pakistan’s intelligence services. Bin Laden and many other Islamic militants got their start in that war.
When the jihad against the Soviets ended in 1989, Pakistan became a haven for thousands of militants from across the Muslim world. With covert support from Pakistan’s army and intelligence agencies, several Pakistan-based militant groups shifted to fighting Indian rule in Kashmir. After Zia’s death in 1988, two civilian rulers, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, continued the government’s support for the militants.
Like many previous rulers of Pakistan, Musharraf is making his own marriage of convenience with Islamic militants, and it will haunt him. Despite their violence and noisy protests, Pakistan’s militant Islamic parties have never won more than 12 percent of a national vote.
Pakistan is a country of about 160 million people, the majority of them moderate Muslims. If the West has any hope of nurturing moderates in places like Pakistan and Egypt, it must support an independent judiciary and a free media. Those institutions help democracy thrive. And that’s why they are the first targets of autocrats.
It’s not enough for President Bush to call Musharraf to ask him to hold new parliamentary elections. The United States must drop its support of Musharraf and encourage democratic alternatives. If the United States chooses democracy over false stability, it can win new allies and foster true stability — not only in Pakistan, but throughout the Muslim world.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.