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November 16, 2007

US Cannot Force Regime Change in Pakistan


by Leon Hadar

American thinker George Santayana once observed: "Those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it." And German political philosopher Karl Marx, who had studied the policy miscalculations made by the European leaders of the 19th century, mused: "History repeats itself, first as a tragedy, second as a farce."

The two renowned theorists were hoping that their comments would serve as warning to future policymakers. Unfortunately, when one analyzes many of the foreign policy decisions made by the Bush administration, one must conclude that President George W. Bush and his aides have treated these cautionary remarks as though they were a set of policy prescriptions instead.

Hence, once it was clear that regime change and democracy promotion seemed to have failed in Iraq (leading to a civil war and the rise to power of Shi'ite political parties with ties to Iran), the Bush administration decided to promote them in Lebanon (strengthening Hezbollah) and in Palestine (leading Hamas to power).

And as it is becoming clear as the various "color revolutions" in places like Ukraine and more recently, Georgia, have exposed those pretending to be local Jeffersonians as failed Machiavellians and ignited domestic political backlash, the Bushies are once again trying to choreograph another political transition of power that would supposedly lead us to another promised land of democracy – this time in Pakistan.

Out of fairness to the current administration, it must be said that Americans of every stripe fervently believes that the US has the right and the obligation to influence and even determine political changes in other countries. This position is not limited to the neoconservatives.

In fact, this idea has been embraced by Republican and Democratic administrations since World War II and it is backed by most members of the US foreign policy establishment.

The opposition by many in Washington to the regime change in Baghdad reflects disagreement with the method (military power) that the Bush administration applied to achieve that goal as well concerns over the cost-effectiveness and management of the operation, not to the self proclaimed duty to act.

Thus, there is therefore no strong disagreement in Congress and elsewhere in the US with the idea that Washington needs to "do something" in order to force Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to "take off" his military uniform and allow free elections in the country.

Similarly, Republicans and Democrats as well as the media seem to be infatuated with former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto whose current performance suggests that she auditioned to play the role of Corazon Aquino in a Pakistani remake of the Philippines' "People's Power" extravaganza. And if she succeeds, she will be like Ukraine's Viktor Yushchenko and Georgia's Mikhail Saakashvili and add another color to US-sponsored democratic revolution, and in the process emerge as a leading opponent of radical Islamic terrorism.

And according to the script written in Washington, the American producer would not only get a woman who is committed to – supposedly! – liberal democratic values elected as prime minister but would even succeed in winning Gen. Musharraf's agreement to play the role of supporting actor (as president) in the movie. Pakistan's powerful military would be co-opted as willing extras.

This all sounds great if you wanted to produce a political fantasy about Pakistan. But if you were doing a documentary about the country – that is, dealing with reality as opposed to wishful thinking – consider the following.

First, like Iraq, Pakistan is not a unified nation-state but a confederation of several ethnic, religious and tribal groups. Indeed, the regime doesn't even control large parts of the country which are dominated by tribal leaders with links to the Taliban

At the same time, Pakistani politics is a depressing story of military coups, civil wars, assassinations and ethnic and religious bloodbaths – and a lot of corruption; all of which has been tolerated by Washington in exchange for Pakistani support during the Cold War and, lately, in the war on terrorism.

Ms. Bhutto and her illustrious family have been very much an integral part of this tragic story. "Pakistani democracy" is an oxymoron – and the buying into the notion that Ms. Bhutto would lead it reflects an astounding naïveté, if not ignorance.

Moreover, at a time when Osama bin Laden is more popular either than Gen. Musharraf and Mr. Bush in Pakistan, is it realistic to imagine that a political figure who is so divisive would ride into power with public support through a political scheme designed in Washington?

Ms. Bhutto can surely talk the talk – employing PR and lobbying firms to market herself, an articulate and attractive Oxford-educated female – as America's Woman in Islamabad. But she lacks the power and the skills to walk the walk.

Even in a best-case scenario, she would end up playing the role of the puppet of Pakistan's military and security services, just as she did during her last term in power in the country.

And, yes, did we mention that Pakistan, unlike Saddam's Iraq – or for that matter, Ukraine and Georgia – has nuclear weapons?

Indeed, the geostrategic importance of Pakistan in the context of the war on terrorism and instability in the Broader Middle East suggests that perhaps the country should not be subject at this point in time to yet another American exercise in democracy promotion.

The most intriguing – and disturbing – historical analogy that is being discussed in Washington these days when the situation in Pakistan is mentioned, is the failed US strategy to choreograph a transition to power when the Shah of Iran began facing growing opposition to his rule in the late 1970s.

American meddling that helped force him out of power while at the same time pressing the Iranian military to refrain from taking control, created the conditions for the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the electoral triumph of Ayatollah Khomeini and his allies.

The US "alliance" with Pakistan's Gen. Musharraf after 9/11 was based mostly on realpolitik considerations, and here one can certainly make the argument that the Bush administration's policy has been a failure as far as getting the Pakistanis to deliver the remnants of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, including perhaps Osama bin Laden, who are hiding in Pakistan's mountains.

Pakistan is not the place and today is not the time for allowing good intentions to pave the road to an illusionary democracy that could end-up looking more like hell.

Copyright © 2007 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

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  • Leon Hadar is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan). He is the former United Nations bureau chief for the Jerusalem Post and is currently the Washington correspondent for the Singapore Business Times. Visit his blog.

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