Democracy sidetracked again

December 28, 2007|By Brian Katulis

Yesterday's murder of Pakistani opposition leader and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto brings U.S. policy on Pakistan back into the spotlight.

Having just returned from Pakistan last week, I can't say that this incident is a complete surprise. On the eve of next month's parliamentary election, tensions among Pakistan's political leaders were palpable as violence escalated.

Despite rosy statements from the White House and U.S. presidential candidates about Pakistan's "march to democracy," the United States faces a complicated set of policy choices that no U.S. administration has gotten right in the 60 years of Pakistan's independence.

For decades, the U.S. approach to Pakistan has suffered from ad hoc, reactive and short-term thinking, and the coming year will present even more difficult choices for U.S. policymakers.

Pakistan is at the nexus of the most pressing security challenges: nuclear weapons, international terrorism, religious extremism, endemic poverty and political reform. It has a direct impact on international efforts in Afghanistan, with the Taliban and al-Qaida finding a haven in the lawless Pakistani-Afghan border regions. Yet even our most experienced national security hands offer few clear ideas on what to do about Pakistan.

The inclination to hitch our plans to singular personalities rather than developing the institutions to advance U.S. interests remains strong. One sign of this came last month, when President Bush said that Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf "truly is somebody who believes in democracy" after Mr. Musharraf imposed emergency rule, shut down media outlets, sacked judges and jailed thousands of lawyers and civil society activists.

Earlier this month in Lahore, an official in a leading opposition party complained to me about U.S. policy's almost singular approach and obsession with individual leaders rather than institutions and the whole society: "Why does President Bush say, `Mr. Musharraf is my friend?' Why doesn't he say, `Pakistan is our friend'?"

All too often in recent years, the United States has looked to elections in other countries as the primary indication for success or failure in a country's progress toward political reform. In Pakistan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the U.S. has become too dependent on individual leaders.

"The United States must work to break this trade union of dictators being created at the international level," Asma Jahangir told me while sitting in her law office in Lahore.

Ms. Jahangir, recently released from house arrest imposed during Mr. Musharraf's emergency law declaration, described how leaders in different countries working to quell democratic dissent are learning lessons from one another by closing down free media and attacking the independence of the judiciary.

As chairwoman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, a distinguished group that has been fighting to improve the country's human rights record for more than two decades, Ms. Jahangir made a passionate case for why the United States, now more than ever, needs to support a real transition to democratic rule in her country.

To her and many other leading human rights activists and political party leaders, elections are the least of their concerns. "Yes, there are dangerous lunatics working on the fringes of Pakistani society," Ms. Jahangir said, referring to the international terrorist groups such as al-Qaida. "But we can't kill them all - we have to get rid of them in other ways as well." The other ways might include building a system based on rule of law and democracy that is capable of bringing terrorists to justice and ensuring that the judiciary is independent.

Experience in Pakistan and elsewhere has shown that putting our hopes on a single leader or a single election rarely makes Americans safer or advances stability and prosperity in other countries. The murder of Mrs. Bhutto is a tragedy, but it should not blind us to the fact that the current rush toward Pakistan's holding elections on Jan. 8 may further destabilize the situation and end up making a mockery of the democratic process.

Brian Katulis is a senior fellow and national security expert at the Center for American Progress in Washington. His e-mail is bkatulis@americanprogress.org.

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