The declaration of martial law in Pakistan and suspension of its constitution underline the policy dilemma that the Bush administration faces in Asia: how far should the United States pressure authoritarian governments to adopt western-style democracy if the result could produce political turmoil and civil war?
Since 9-11, George Bush and Condoleezza Rice have urged friendly military-led governments in the Middle East and South Asia to open their political systems, hold national elections, and allow political parties to function openly.
However, we saw during the past year that free elections can have a damaging effect on political stability in some of these countries. Lebanon's voting resulted in large gains for Hesbollah, the Syrian-backed terrorist organization; Palestine's elections produced a majority for Hamas, a terrorist organization committed to Israel's destruction.
Similarly, national balloting in Iraq in 2005 resulted in a Shiite-dominated government that shows little ability to hold the country together or deal effectively with an insurgency. Without the presence of U.S. forces, Iraq would fragment and descend into civil war.
Pakistan and Iran are today the most urgent foreign policy problems facing the United States.
This Muslim country, a part of the British empire until 1947, became a nuclear power in 1999. Unlike its neighbor India, also a colonial possession of Britain until 1947, Pakistan has since then experienced limited success with democratic government. Whenever civilian governments became blatantly corrupt or ineffective, Pakistan's military seized power and imposed authoritarian rule.
President Pervez Musharrif is the most recent military leader to lead a military-run government in Pakistan. Shortly after imposing martial law on November 3, he said that Pakistan was not ready for democracy, that Westerners who said it was did not understand his country. He cautioned: "Please do not expect or demand your level of democracy, which you learned over a number of centuries."
None of Pakistani's governments, civilian or military, has exercised control in the mountainous western regions bordering on Afghanistan. These areas are ruled by tribal chieftains who exercise quasi-autonomy from Pakistan's central government. In the 1980s they provided sanctuary to Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters battling Soviet troops in Afghanistan and, since 9-11, have fought American and allied forces who support the Karzai government.
Pakistan's political crisis will not be resolved by a military-led government. President Bush and Secretary of State Rice are pressing Musharrif to hold scheduled elections in January 2008 and relinquish his role as military commander. A key question is whether he will allow Benazir Bhutto, his chief rival for power, to lead her large secular party in free elections and become prime minister if she wins.
Meanwhile, the parts of Pakistan not under government control are now safe-havens for al-Qaeda. It trains new terrorists to attack NATO forces in Afghanistan and targets in the Middle East, Europe, and North America.
This Revolutionary Islamic Republic is potentially more dangerous than Pakistan because its government is anti-western and determined to build nuclear weapons. Although it has the trappings of democracy, Iran is a tightly controlled state where the Islamic clergy exercises supreme authority and bans many politicians from running for office.
Iran's drive to become a nuclear power and exercise hegemony in the Persian Gulf area makes it a dangerous threat to Arab neighbors as well as the United States and Europe. Britain, France, Germany and the United States are united in forcing Tehran to abandon its nuclear ambitions, but Russia and China oppose severe sanction because of their economic interests in Iran.
President Bush and Vice President Cheney have warned Iran that the United States will not permit it to acquire nuclear weapons. This threat evokes speculation on whether the president would actually use military power to enforce his warning. At present there is little sentiment in Congress to give the president that authority. But should Iran commit a serious provocation in the Persian Gulf or elsewhere, public and congressional opinion could change quickly.
The final year of a presidential term often finds a lame-duck president unable to deal effectively with international crises. Hopefully, the dangers posed by Pakistan and Iran will not rise to crisis proportions during 2008.
File last modified on Sunday, 18-NOVEMBER-2007 1:03 PM EST