When an antiterror ally fails

Pakistan's Musharraf again derails democracy while the US does little to punish him.

As in love, so in diplomacy, it's wiser to see what people do than what they say. So far, the US has protested much about emergency rule imposed on Pakistan Saturday. But what will it actually do? Not much, if the past is any guide.

Pakistani strongman Pervez Musharraf, after all, remains a valuable US ally in the fight against Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders along the Afghan border. And President Bush seems more interested in preventing another 9/11-style attack on his watch than in taking firm steps to push Muslim countries such as Pakistan toward a democracy that can dispel extremism.

Since taking power by force eight years ago, President Musharraf has promised a return to full democracy. And in recent weeks, he appeared to be moving toward civilian rule by forging a deal with a leading opposition figure, Benazir Bhutto.

But Musharraf, whose real power lies in being Army commander, also faced a possible Supreme Court decision that might have prevented him from ruling as a civilian president under the power-sharing deal. That threat, as well as a recent rise in political violence, pushed him to sack the chief justice, arrest key political figures, restrict the media, and otherwise come very close to imposing martial law.

The US, of course, is "deeply disturbed" by this backsliding. But compare the reaction of the Bush administration to what President Carter did in 1979 after the then-head of the Pakistani Army seized power and hanged the elected president: He cut off aid to Pakistan.

Or compare it to what President Reagan did in 1986 after Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos rigged an election and lost military and popular support: The US told him to leave the country, and provided the aircraft to do it. Reagan also pushed South Korea and Taiwan into democracy.

In such cases, the US saw greater benefit in having a democrat than a dictator as a cold-war ally. But such examples of American presidents standing up to their own bullies during a global war is the exception. Colluding with tyrants, while it violates democratic ideals, can serve short-term American interests but also harm the long-term goal of creating democracies.

Few presidents get the balance right. And in this case with Pakistan, the US is unlikely to suspend military aid and cooperation in order to push Musharraf to step down. His troops still fight, if weakly, the Islamic militants that threaten the Western world. That remains more appealing to the White House than the uncertainties of a chaotic, nuclear-armed Pakistani democracy.

President Bush admits the difficulty of fulfilling his second-term inaugural pledge to promote freedom. Just look at the lack of democracy in Saudi Arabia, another terrorist front. And indeed, since 2004 many countries from Russia to Venezuela to Egypt have become more authoritarian. "America can maintain a friendship and push a nation towards democracy at the same time," he says.

The US does better in spreading democracy when it lives up to its own standards and provides more carrots than sticks to move nations toward freedom. But its funding for building democratic institutions and reducing poverty are small compared with its military spending. Crises such as Pakistan's could be avoided if the US talked less and acted more along those lines.

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