In pursuing their global agendas, American governments naturally prefer to deal with strong national leaders, and that is true even if those foreign leaders happen to be dictators. It's easier for Washington to do business that way. Democracies are messy, and often unreliable. They tend to have their own agendas.
American governments, both Republican and Democrat, have long embraced military dictators and ruthless autocrats because they were judged to be on â€œour sideâ€ in whatever conflict divided us from our enemies. Our founding fathers did business with Louis XVI (later beheaded by the French) in the war for independence. President Carter praised the Shah of Iran as a â€œpillar of democracyâ€ (later overthrown by the Iranian people) in the Cold War. And President Bush, despite his lofty rhetoric about promoting democracy in the Middle East, has lavished arms and money on the increasingly unpopular President (ex-General and military dictator) Musharraf of Pakistan.
The French king was a good bet. His navy helped us turn the tide against the British. The shah was a bad bet, largely because President Carter had no â€œPlan Bâ€ for Iran, which is still in the hands of the Islamic clerics who replaced the shah. And now in Pakistan, it looks as if Washington needs a Plan C.
The Bush administration's Plan A for Pakistan was Musharraf, the Army chief of staff who seized power in a traditional Pakistani coup and has milked the U.S. for billions by promising to fight Al Qaeda and the Taliban. But by early this year, Pakistan had become the world headquarters for Al Qaeda and the main staging area for Taliban attacks on Afghanistan. It was not only obvious that Musharraf couldn't or wouldn't deliver on his promises; he was also becoming increasingly autocratic and unpopular. So Washington began to look around for alternatives.
The White House settled on former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto as Plan B. Harvard and Oxford educated, she would form the third pillar of a new power structure linking Musharraf, the army and her popular and progressive Pakistan People's Party. But the Bush administration's plans to engineer her return to Pakistan and broker a shotgun wedding with Musharraf were so obvious that they may have been one of the principle reasons she was assassinated. Mr. Bush's blessing was the kiss of death, just as it has also undermined popular support for Musharraf.
Which brings us to Plan C. At this point Washington is desperately looking for someone else to do business with in Pakistan and has begun contacting members of the political party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who also recently returned from political exile. The fact that Washington does not fully trust Mr. Sharif because they believe he is too close to the more radical elements of Pakistan's Islamic community, may turn out to be a blessing. Many Pakistanis may conclude that if Washington is suspicious of Sharif, he must be O.K. There are not many other alternatives. Without Bhutto, her Pakistan People's Party is rudderless, and the other parties are more regional in nature.
The popular vote for the smaller Islamic parties in Pakistan is usually in the low teens, but as Jonathan Paris, an expert on Pakistan, recently pointed out, that was also the case with the Islamic party Hamas, which a decade ago was said to have the support of only 15 percent of the population in the Palestinian Territories. Last year, it won the Palestinian elections. So you can never rule out the possibility that militants will some day win control of the world's only nuclear-armed Islamic government.
Who will likely rule Pakistan now that Bhutto has been eliminated? The best guess is the same people who have been running the country all along -- the army. Whether behind the scenes or as a military regime, the army holds the real levers of power. It controls the nukes, much of the economy and brandishes an implied veto over the actions of the government. Whoever ends up as the front man â€“ or woman â€“ of the next Pakistani government, the army will still have the ultimate power. They are the people that America will really be dealing with. Washington has always found it more comfortable to work that way.