Editorial Column: Bush Supports Pakistani Dictator

Washington Post

November 6, 2007 – Just last Thursday, President Bush spoke of his Freedom Agenda spreading democracy across the globe: “We are standing with those who yearn for liberty.”

Yesterday, the Bush administration unveiled a pragmatic new foreign policy: The Stand by Your Man Agenda.

In the intervening period, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, a U.S. ally, had suspended his country’s constitution, arrested Supreme Court judges, closed media outlets, and beat or imprisoned demonstrators by the hundreds — using some of his billions of dollars in American military aid to impose martial law.

Bush’s Freedom Agenda frowns upon these activities — and yet Bush and his aides acted yesterday as if Musharraf had made an illegal right on red, or perhaps parked in a handicapped space.

“What we think we ought to be doing is using our various forms of influence at this point in time to help a friend, who we think has done something ill-advised,” one of Bush’s top aides declared from the podium in the White House briefing room.

“The question is, what do you do when someone makes a mistake that is a close ally?” the official argued. “The president’s guidance to us is see if we can work with them to get back on track.”

So would there be consequences for Musharraf’s misbehavior? “That’s going to depend heavily on what we hear, obviously, from the Pakistani government,” he said, making sure to add: “And that is not a threat in any way.”

It didn’t even rise to a diplomatic slap on the wrist — and Bush aides must have realized this was not something to be proud of. Before the official briefed reporters from behind the microphone, an aide removed the oval White House seal from the lectern. And the White House ordered that the official, though he has appeared on the Sunday television talk shows, speak anonymously.

“Can we make it on the record?” the Associated Press’s Terry Hunt asked at the start of the briefing.

“No,” replied White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe. “The president has spoken on the record.”

Indeed he had — no more forcefully than Mr. Anonymous.

“With respect to Pakistan, it is also our desire to see a return to democracy in the shortest time possible,” Bush announced in the Oval Office. “I hope now that he hurry back to elections,” he added.

And what happens if Musharraf ignores Bush’s hopes and desires? “Hypothetical question,” Bush replied.

Did Bush misjudge Musharraf? No answer.

It has been a humbling few days for the administration and its attempts to exercise American power. Last week, Bush aides begged Musharraf not to suspend the constitution — and he ignored them. Similarly, Bush met in the Oval Office yesterday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, urging him not to send troops into Iraq to fight Kurdish militants — and Erdogan evidently gave him no commitment.

“In an environment where international support and cooperation does not exist, Turkey, quite naturally, will exercise its own right to protect itself and its people against terrorism,” the prime minister, echoing some of Bush’s own “war on terror” language, told the National Press Club after his meeting with the president.

The defiance by Musharraf and, to a lesser extent, Erdogan, left Bush and his aides sounding like representatives of a pitiful giant.

“We made it clear to [Musharraf] that we would hope he wouldn’t have declared the emergency powers he declared,” said Bush.

White House press secretary Dana Perino voiced her “hope” that Pakistan will proceed with elections.

And Mr. Anonymous mentioned his hopes eight times in his 40 minutes with reporters. “We hope that we’ll get some clarification on the intentions of the government in the next few days. . . . We are hopeful that we will see some clarification. . . . We hope they will do that.”

Missing were the serious diplomatic words such as “outrageous” and “unacceptable.” In their place were gentle sentiments such as “unfortunate” and “disappointed” and, two dozen times, “concern.” The concern was so slight, though, that the official admitted that Bush hadn’t even spoken directly with Musharraf.

Elaine Quijano of CNN asked about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s charge that Bush had sacrificed democracy for Musharraf’s help against terrorists.

The official replied that Pakistan was “emblematic of the president’s strategy generally.”

USA Today’s David Jackson asked if this might be termed “a setback for the Freedom Agenda.”

“We don’t know, because we don’t know how this story comes out,” Mr. Anonymous said.

Cox News’s Ken Herman asked if Bush was giving Musharraf a deadline for action.

“No,” the official replied.

Steven Myers of the New York Times said that the administration seemed “to have had very little influence” on Musharraf.”

“We have a lot of influence,” the official replied, “but we don’t dictate.”

Speak softly and carry a slender reed: It’s a key component of the Stand by Your Man Agenda.

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