U.S. Should Support Democracy in Pakistan

05/25/2011 12:15 pm ET

Remarks at an event last night at Northwestern University, sponsored by Americans for Informed Democracy.

Since September 11, the policy of the Bush Administration in Pakistan has been that General Pervez Musharraf is our guy, and there is no alternative. The conventional thinking in Washington has been that if Musharraf falls, the Taliban or their equivalent will take over Pakistan. U.S. military aid to Pakistan - a standard benchmark of Washington's political support of a developing country government - went from $9 million in the three years before 9/11 to $4 billion in the three years after. Pakistan is now the third largest recipient of U.S. military aid, behind Israel and Egypt.

This conventional thinking has gone largely unchallenged in Congress, even among those otherwise critical of the Bush Administration's foreign policy. In a Democratic Presidential debate in August, Senator Dodd criticized Senator Obama's remarks about Pakistan - in which he said the U.S. should strike terrorist targets in Pakistan if the Pakistani government refuses to do so - saying Obama's remarks could undermine President Musharraf. "While General Musharraf is no Thomas Jefferson, he may be the only thing that stands between us and having an Islamic fundamentalist state in that country," Dodd said. "So while I would like to see him change, the reality is, if we lose him, then what we face is an alternative that could be a lot worse for our country." Senator Dodd is generally considered one of the more liberal members of Congress, particularly on foreign policy. In Latin America, Dodd takes a hard line on human rights. You would never catch Dodd saying that we have to support Colombia's President Uribe because the only alternative is the FARC guerillas.

Likewise, Senator Clinton said that while U.S. forces might have to pursue action inside Pakistan "on the basis of actionable intelligence," it was "a very big mistake to telegraph that and to destabilize the Musharraf regime, which is fighting for its life against the Islamist extremists who are in bed with al Qaeda and the Taliban."

I don't fault these Senators for criticizing Obama's remarks. The clear implication of Obama's remarks, as was widely reported at the time, was that the U.S. should undertake military operations in Pakistan against the wishes of Pakistan's government. This would be a major violation of international law and Pakistani sovereignty, and the public threat of such attacks undermines the Pakistani government in a way that is counterproductive and unjust. But in criticizing Obama's remarks, both Clinton and Dodd relied on the assumption that the choices for the U.S. in Pakistan are either Musharraf or an Islamic fundamentalist state, according to Senator Dodd, or between Musharraf and "Islamist extremists who are in bed with al Qaeda and the Taliban," according to Senator Clinton.

The democratic opposition to military rule in Pakistan sees it differently. There is, of course, Islamist opposition to Musharraf, and such opposition is strong in parts of the country. But Islamist parties have never scored higher than 12 percent in a general election, as AP noted in July. "We don't think that after Musharraf the extremists or the fundamentalists will take over," a spokesman for former Prime Minister Bhutto told AP. "Pakistan's electoral history proves that the religious parties have never gained that kind of strength that they can rule the country. but Gen. Musharraf is deliberately promoting this view," the spokesman said. "He wants to give the impression that, 'After me, the whole structure will collapse.'"

U.S. policy has accepted this view. But Americans should question whether it is really in our interest to place ourselves in the way of Pakistanis' democratic aspirations, on the unproven assumption that it is expedient to do so. During the Cold War, the way to get a green light from Washington for repression was to say you were fighting communism. We should not repeat this mistake in the name of a "war on terror."

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