A Despot in Washington

A few days before his visit to the United States, President Pervez Musharraf said he was running a “fragile, soft” state. The western media, too, is awash with stories of a reformist general living dangerously in a volatile country. Yet, even rumors of a coup from within the ranks, or a popular Islamic insurgency, did not arise as he left Islamabad on Friday (February 8) for Boston to see his son, three days before the start of his official visit. On the contrary, the more days he gets to spend in the United States, the more secure his position seems to get at home.

It is a manifestation of a colonial relationship between power centers of the two countries that a reception at the White House gives legitimacy to tin-pot despots in Pakistan. Running a “fragile, soft” state, with India threatening war, General Musharraf finds cover and support in Washington’s recognition of his role in the war on terror. Images of his meetings with the American president are worth more than many million votes at home. A handshake and a pat on the shoulder by Bush should thwart the Indian threat.

As always, Pakistan’s military is dutifully serving American political and military interests, which the metropolis of Washington must now reward with patronage and guarantees of continuity for the Musharraf government and its policies. It is more in its symbolism than its substance that the success of this visit will be measured in Pakistan.

Regardless of how he performs at press conferences and in front of the camera, General Musharraf is almost assured of gaining domestic political mileage out of this visit. Any trade concessions by the United States–even if they are as nominal as relaxing the textile quota–will be peddled as great economic successes. The removal of nuclear and democracy sanctions after September 11 has already provided breathing space to the stagnant economy of Pakistan. Resumption of the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program and promises of more financial assistance will further appease the ruling military officer class, the main constituency of General Musharraf and a direct beneficiary of his rule.

In short, acceptance of and praise for Musharraf in Washington translates into power in Islamabad. However, this is true only for the military rulers of Pakistan. The last time a Pakistani civilian leader visited the United States, he met with quite the opposite fate.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit in July 1999 was seen as a “humiliating, desperate dash” to seek President Clinton’s help in ending the Kargil conflict with India. Mr. Sharif had won the election in 1997 by the most convincing margin ever in Pakistan. There was no immediate threat to his government from any political quarter in the country. Over two-thirds of the parliamentarians supported him at that time. However, despite pulling the country back from the brink of a war with India–or perhaps because of it–the Washington trip led to Sharif’s downfall.

The media, clearly encouraged by the anti-Sharif elements in the military establishment, denounced the Prime Minister’s desperate diplomacy as a “sellout in Washington.” Newspaper columnists and religious parties shredded Mr. Sharif’s policy of peace with India to pieces. A battle won militarily in Kargil, the pro-military media had argued implausibly, was lost politically by Mr. Sharif. The build-up of public opinion against the Sharif government culminated on October 12, 1999, when he was accused of hijacking General Musharraf’s plane and removed peacefully by the troops. Sharif was later convicted by a court as a hijacker, the only Prime Minister in the world ever to have earned the “distinction,” and now lives in exile in Saudi Arabia.

No such threats exist for Musharraf, especially after his American tour. The military and the media are firmly behind him. He is in power for the long haul. The Bush baptism in Washington will only bless him with more credibility within his institution and in other sections of Pakistani elite. Bad days are ahead for the Islamists as well as the democratic lobby in Pakistan, as Washington sees in General Musharraf a “role model” as a ruler of a Muslim country.