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Bush forced to reassess his faith in Musharraf

President Bush says he gains influence with world leaders by building personal relations with them. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf got a dose of that diplomacy at the White House last fall, when Bush hailed him as a friend and a voice of moderation.
/ Source: The Associated Press

President Bush says he gains influence with world leaders by building personal relations with them. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf got a dose of that diplomacy at the White House last fall, when Bush hailed him as a friend and a voice of moderation.

"The president is a strong defender of freedom and the people of Pakistan," Bush said that day, side by side with Musharraf.

Over the weekend, that advocate of freedom emerged with a different world image: a military dictator willing to crush the rights of his own people. Now Bush will need to rely on the other half of his personal diplomacy formula – dealing bluntly with those he has put faith in – and hope it works.

By unleashing a police state on his country, Musharraf put in motion a trifecta of trouble for the Bush administration. A nuclear-armed Pakistan lurched further into instability, civil rights and parliamentary elections were shoved aside, and the credibility of a Bush-backed leader took an enormous hit.

Musharraf declared a state of emergency on Saturday on grounds that Islamic militancy had become a grave threat to Pakistan. But his move also clearly targeted the Supreme Court in his country, which was weighing the legitimacy of his recent election and checking his power.

So, in a flash, came accounts from Islamabad that appalled and embarrassed U.S. leaders.

Police and soldiers rounded up Musharraf's rivals and dragged off protesters. Government buildings became barbed-wire compounds. Phones were cut off, the independent media were censored, and Musharraf, an army general serving a dual role as elected president, had authoritarian control.

The crisis revealed the limits of Bush's leverage.

Rice outreach not successful
His top diplomat, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, had implored Musharraf not to suspend the constitution and invoke emergency rule. Such outreach had worked before. It did not this time.

On Sunday, the second day of the crisis, Bush's team showed public signs of reassessing its options.

Rice, in Ramallah, West Bank for Middle East talks Monday, said Musharraf should cut his affiliation with the army and restore civilian rule. At a news conference, she urged him to follow through on past promises to "take off his uniform."

"I want to be very clear. We believe that the best path for Pakistan is to quickly return to a constitutional path and then to hold elections," she said.

The Pentagon postponed a meeting scheduled for this week in Islamabad between senior U.S. and Pakistani defense officials.

And, Rice's admonitions for a return to democracy grew. She said the U.S. government was reviewing billions of dollars in aid to Pakistan. But even there, there are limitations.

Most U.S. aid to Pakistan goes toward military support; the U.S. counts on Pakistan to help capture al-Qaida operations and provide intelligence. "We're obviously not going to do anything that will undermine the war on terror," said Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for Bush.

Making matters worse: The parliamentary elections in Pakistan, considered by the U.S. to be a genuine step toward democracy in Pakistan, have long been scheduled for January. They now may be delayed up to a year.

"Let's not be delusional about the U.S. government's influence. This is a huge, complex country, and most everything is going to happen outside of our play," said Rick Barton, a Pakistan expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "But we can be a leader here."

By putting military rule ahead of the rights of his people, Musharraf has presented Bush with a test of sincerity of his freedom agenda, Barton said.

"Let's just accept that Musharraf's probably going to go down," he said. "Let's just do the right thing, and be seen by the Pakistanis as holding true to our own values and principles. Musharraf has clearly moved from being a force of moderation to being somebody who's more of a self-serving leader."

Another hopeful scenario in the U.S. view is that Pakistan's emergency states ends fast _ a setback, but not a devastating one. Democracy is still the path that Pakistanis want, Johndroe said. "This is a slight detour," he said. "But I think they will get back on it. And we will strongly encourage them to do so."

Joseph Cirincione, a nuclear security expert and senior fellow for the liberal Center for American Progress, said there are few good American policy options in Pakistan. He said Pakistan is the world's most dangerous country – an unstable place of strong Islamic fundamentalist influences and a nuclear arsenal.

"If the government falls, if the Army splits, who gets the weapons?" Cirincione said. "Who gets the material for the weapons? Who gets the scientists who know how to build the weapons? Pakistan could go overnight from a major non-NATO ally to our worst nuclear nightmare."

Musharraf came into power in a coup in 1999. He became an ally of Bush's after the Sept. 11 attacks, and helped coalition forces battle al-Qaida.

Bush must now try to find a balance – maintain a strategic relationship with Pakistan on security without seeming to abandon the importance of human rights.

"Musharraf is losing whatever is left of his legitimacy. And without legitimacy, you can't do anything against terrorism," said Frederic Grare, who served as a counselor for the French embassy in Pakistan.

Grare said Bush still has leverage through U.S. aid to Pakistan, which has totaled more than $10 billion since 2001.

"Let's see how far they are willing to go," Grare said.

Bush is expected to make his first public comments about the crisis on Monday.

Meanwhile, Rice insisted Sunday that "The United States did not put all its chips on Musharraf."

Some on Capitol Hill aren't buying that.

"This administration has a Musharraf policy, not a Pakistani policy, " said Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a presidential candidate. "Its hands are pretty well tied right now. And it's put itself in a very difficult position, and, in turn, us in a difficult position."


Ben Feller covers the White House for The Associated Press.