Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Motorized Goalposts, Pakistan Edition

The easiest and psychologically most satisfying solution for failure is to move the goalposts.

We saw it in Iraq, where a glorious end-zone to end-zone drive to save the world from a maniac armed with weapons of mass destruction shrunk incrementally until today success is measured by the America’s ability to reduce sectarian violence in Baghdad—a quarterback sneak on a field the size of a pool table.

Same thing in Pakistan, where the current line is that we’re handwringing spectators in a nasty scrap between Mr. Military and Mrs. Democracy:

Here’s today’s line (from the Nov. 13 WaPo):

Until recently, the Bush administration also had supported Bhutto's exploration of a deal with Musharraf in a bid to help stabilize the country...

That's not quite accurate. The abortive power-sharing deal between Bhutto and Musharraf was, unqestionably, Made in America.

But now that it's blown up in our faces, we're not so keen to admit it.

But those of us whose memories go way back—like maybe a month—will recall a time when the U.S. was unafraid to admit that we were pulling Mr. Musharraf and Ms. Bhutto’s strings for the sake of big plans for Pakistan:

From the October 20 New York Times :

The administration concluded over the summer that a power-sharing deal with Ms. Bhutto might be the only way that General Musharraf could keep from being toppled.

It began quietly nurturing the accord, under which Ms. Bhutto’s party did not boycott General Musharraf’s election last month, and the president issued a decree granting Ms. Bhutto and others amnesty for recent corruption charges, opening the way for her return.

Administration officials say that Ms. Rice stepped up her personal involvement last month, when it seemed possible that General Musharraf’s other political nemesis, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, would make his own bid to return to power, and upset the deal.
In their push to engineer a pact between Ms. Bhutto and General Musharraf, American officials for several months held private meetings in Islamabad, New York and Washington.
John D. Negroponte, the deputy secretary of state, and Richard A. Boucher, the top State Department official for Pakistan, each went to Islamabad to press General Musharraf into the deal.

Now that things in Pakistan are going downhill, the goalposts haven’t just been moved.

They’ve been shifted onto somebody else’s field and now we’re not participants—we’re just spectators.

The most significant episode of goalpost shifting has been done by Benazir Bhutto, who upped the ante from her original demands—Musharraf’s retirement from the army and the end of the state of emergency—to a new demand that Musharraf step down.

In analyzing Bhutto’s motivations, I think the money grafs are in today’s LA Times :

Specifically, Bhutto has been unable to get Musharraf to commit himself to a date for stepping down as army chief. A Pakistani law passed several years ago requires that he shed his uniform by Thursday, but Musharraf has said he will do so only when the Supreme Court -- now stacked with his loyalists -- validates his reelection last month as president. A ruling could come this week [emphasis added]."

Until now, he's the one who had taken all the initiative," said Samir Puri, a defense analyst for Rand Europe. "Benazir realized she had to seize her own moment."

Let’s chew on that a little bit.

The power-sharing deal between Musharraf and Bhutto was based on Musharraf becoming president and resigning his military post and Bhutto becoming prime minister.

So, just as Musharraf is about to reach the safe haven of the presidency, take off his military uniform--in time to meet the Thursday deadline!--and, presumably, announce he’s ready to talk about the elections and the end of emergency rule, Bhutto moves the goalposts by insisting he step down.

That’s going to make for some interesting and awkward conversation between Musharraf and Negroponte in Islamabad this week, considering that Big John’s last visit was devoted to twisting Musharraf’s arm into accepting Bhutto and assuring him that everything was going to be OK.

The interesting question is whether this is just another example of Bush administration feckless incompetence, or part of some deeper plan.

Our stated aim was to strengthen Musharraf by injecting some of that popular civilian democracy mojo via Benazir Bhutto. That’s obviously not working. Pakistan is lurching into crisis and Bhutto’s behind a lot of it.

Conspiracy theorists will speculate that Bhutto was Trojan Horse, and the Bush administration wanted to get her into Pakistan under any pretext possible and rely on her to destabilize the country and push Musharraf out of the picture in favor of a civilian government led by Bhutto and backed by the much-beloved (at least by Western pundits) military strongman (and current number 2 to Musharraf) Ishfaq Pervaiz Kiyani.

Bhutto is a wildly ambitious, capable, and powerful politician. It would not be out of the question for her to game the Bush administration with reassuring protestations of her desire to work with Musharraf but then, once Washington was on the hook and she was inside Pakistan, doing everything she can to drop the hammer on Musharraf.

The best way to gauge her intentions and the plans of the Bush administration?

Let’s see where the goalposts are tomorrow.

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