The Devil We Know

The niece of Benazir Bhutto explains why Bhutto’s return is not a positive development for Pakistan:

Perhaps the most bizarre part of this circus has been the hijacking of the democratic cause by my aunt, the twice-disgraced former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto. While she was hashing out a deal to share power with Gen. Pervez Musharraf last month, she repeatedly insisted that without her, democracy in Pakistan would be a lost cause. Now that the situation has changed, she’s saying that she wants Musharraf to step down and that she’d like to make a deal with his opponents — but still, she says, she’s the savior of democracy.

The reality, however, is that there is no one better placed to benefit from emergency rule than she is. Along with the leaders of prominent Islamic parties, she has been spared the violent retributions of emergency law. Yes, she now appears to be facing seven days of house arrest, but what does that really mean? While she was supposedly under house arrest at her Islamabad residence last week, 50 or so of her party members were comfortably allowed to join her. She addressed the media twice from her garden, protected by police given to her by the state, and was not reprimanded for holding a news conference. (By contrast, the very suggestion that they might hold a news conference has placed hundreds of other political activists under real arrest, in real jails.)

Ms. Bhutto’s political posturing is sheer pantomime. Her negotiations with the military and her unseemly willingness until just a few days ago to take part in Musharraf’s regime have signaled once and for all to the growing legions of fundamentalists across South Asia that democracy is just a guise for dictatorship.

Bhutto was ejected for Pakistan for massive corruption. She was growing rich at the expense of the Pakistani people, and there’s little reason to believe that all her noble words about democracy aren’t just a way of getting her hand back in the cookie jar.

As reprehensible as we find the idea of Musharraf’s emergency rule, we have to consider the alternatives. Benazir Bhutto was in power when Pakistan was providing support to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. She was kicked out of the country for corruption on a massive scale. It is uncertain that she could hold the country together in the face of rising Islamic extremism.

Pervez Musharraf, for all his flaws, has promised that there will be elections in January. He appears to be preparing for a crackdown on the al-Qaeda infested regions of Waziristan and the restive territories along the Afghan/Pakistan border. He has already worked towards reducing tensions with India over Kashmir.

As a general principle, what Musharraf is doing is wrong. Democracy should be a key principle of American foreign policy. However, we cannot ignore the reality that Pakistani democracy could lead to nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorist groups—or even a government willing to provoke India into a nuclear exchange. The level of Islamic radicalism in Pakistan could lead to a government more like Hamas than we can accept.

Musharraf, unfortunately, is the devil we know. We should be pushing him to end his emergency rule as soon as practicable, and to treat his people with respect and only minimize civil liberties as much as absolutely necessary. We should push him to help develop civil society in Pakistan and ensure that the Pakistani government does not succumb to the same endemic corruption that ended Bhutto’s government. However, looking at the situation in Pakistan, we have to consider that right now Musharraf’s interests are closely enough aligned with our own that to lose Musharraf would be to lose a stabilizing force in the region.

If all this reeks of realpolitik, that’s because it is. However, democratic idealism has its place, but not at the potential cost of a nuclear war in Central Asia. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for our foreign policy problems, which is why we must show flexibility in dealing with the Musharraf regime. We want a democratic Pakistan, but that must not mean allowing a Taliban-like regime to possess nuclear weapons. In this case, it is better to go with the devil we know rather than the one we do not.

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