As the early 19th Century essayist Charles Caleb Colton observed: "Corruption is like a ball of snow, once it's set a rolling it must increase." And indeed, there is perhaps no better validation for this aphorism than this week's political meltdown in Pakistan. Following the Supreme Court's ruling to bar opposition leader and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (and his brother, Punjab's chief minister Shahbaz Sharif) from holding public office, mobs took to the streets and, rather than besiege the court, went straight to blaming the president, Asif Ali Zardari...Their censure is most likely warranted.
Zardari, the dastard prince of Pakistan and widower to the assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, is certainly no saint. Though never convicted, Zardari has been arrested before for corruption and, during his wife's stint as Prime Minister in the 1990s, is rumored to have amassed and laundered upward of $1.5 billion. And though the couple shared in whatever fortune may have been defalcated, it is generally agreed that Zardari was more the rotten apple of the pair. According to the renowned Pakistani journalist and author, Tariq Ali, "Benazir's closest supporters insist that her political prestige was squandered by her husband, that he was a fraud, a poseur, a wastrel, a philanderer, and must worse."
Moreover, unlike Sharif, who enjoys 59 percent favorability among the populous (just a few points below President Obama's current approval rating), Zardari's approval rating is a dismal 19 percent (low even by George Bush standards). The court's ruling is widely viewed as being politically charged, at Zardari's behest, and naught but the latest installment of an ongoing feud that revamped a few months ago between the two men, following their joint ouster of Pervez Musharraf.
Like Colton's proverbial snowball, Zardari must build upon his past misdeeds so as to prevent that very past from catching up with him. The specter of criminal corruption lurks interminably over his shoulder, most notably in the form of Iftikhar Chaudhry. Chaudhry -- the former Chief Justice who was removed from the court by Musharraf, against the wishes of the people, and who would reintroduce charges on the reprobate Zardari if allowed to return -- was set to be Sharif's 'ace in the hole'. Thus it is no surprise that Pakistan's presidential putz has resorted to such obvious skullduggery to castrate his rival.
Politically, it is the height of irony that Pakistan means, in Urdu, "the land of the pure". (The name was created by Chaudhry Rahmat Ali, while he was a student in London, and was meant to be an acronym comprised of the first letters of Pakistan's myriad provinces -- P for Punjab, and so forth.) Without delving too deep into the country's political soap opera, suffice it to say that there appears to be no player without some blot on his escutcheon. The political and popular divisions that have erupted this week indicate that it is business (read: hypocrisy and corruption) as usual. However, the circumstances of late have changed for the worse. The Pakistani government is quickly becoming overwhelmed in an attempt to keep its house in order. By Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry's calculations, $4-5 billion is needed immediately to prevent an all-out disintegration of law and order.
On the eastern front is renewed strife with India, Pakistan's oldest and original adversary, over the Mumbai terror attacks last year. And in the northwest is a resurgent Taliban that the Pakistani military is both unable and unwilling to confront. Following a tinny peace agreement this week, allegations have arisen that there may have even been a $6 million bribe to encourage Taliban leaders' cooperation, revealing the extent of the government's impuissance and desperation. With Pakistan as a crucial ally in the region, and a key to any significant gains in Afghanistan, the political deterioration spurred by the court's ruling is troubling. If further aid will simply become graft money rather than fund security efforts, clearly the U.S. must involve itself in some other fashion.
And yet, on Wednesday the State Department's spokesman Robert Wood, when asked about the turmoil in Pakistan, gave the following response to reporters: "Well, obviously, we're concerned about any violence that takes place anywhere around the world. But you know, that seems to me something that the Pakistani Government will need to handle, but I don't have any further comment on it."
As Tariq Ali writes in his latest book, The Duel: "In Pakistan itself the long night continues as the cycle restarts: military leadership promising reforms degenerates into tyranny, politicians promising social support to the people degenerate into oligarchs. Given that a better functioning neighbor is unlikely to intervene, Pakistan will oscillate between these two forms of rule for the foreseeable future."
The United States must be that 'intervening neighbor'. But, it must do so as tacitly and diplomatically as possible. For starters, Obama and Clinton should demand increased oversight, or at least transparency, as a condition for further aid to the Pakistanis. Beyond that, it is essential that Zardari and Sharif reach some kind of palatable reconciliation. There is no telling who would fill the void in the case of political fallout, and it must always be remembered that Pakistan is a nuclear power.
The Economist reports that Bryan Hunt, the U.S. consul-general in Lahore, visited Sharif on Wednesday. This is a good start, but it must be followed up with higher-level involvement. Most importantly, Zardari, having the position of power, should be pressured to forgo his characteristic puerility in the interest of salvaging the situation. The proverbial snowball must be stopped. Clearly this will be a sticky negotiation going forward, but what is clear is that sitting idly by is not an option.
Follow Stuart Whatley on Twitter: www.twitter.com/stuwhat84