Thursday, December 27, 2007

Democratic Pakistan Stares Into the Abyss

Beyond the immediate tragedy of Benazir Bhutto’s death by violence in Rawalpindi, the greater tragedy for Pakistan is that the opportunity for a peaceful transfer of power—one that did not involve assassination, judicial murder, or legal vendetta—has been lost.

What was going to happen after January 8 parliamentary elections was probably not going to be fair, democratic, or ungrudging, but the consensual shoehorning of some combination of Bhutto and elements of Sharif’s PML-N into Pakistan’s governing arrangement seemed imminent.

Now these hopes have been dashed, brutally and seemingly totally.

And at a stroke, the assassination has revealed how rickety the U.S. brokered deal to elevate her into the prime ministership was, and, more importantly, displayed frailties and fissures at the heart of Pakistan’s political institutions and civil society.

Bhutto’s PPP was a one-woman show and her violent removal from Pakistan’s political scene was a contingency that the United States apparently failed to plan for. Bhutto left no obvious successor.

Now her supporters, with their expectations and anger, have been cut adrift.

Dawn reports:

Intense violence was reported from all parts of Sindh, especially Karachi and Larkana, Ms Bhutto’s hometown.

Fear and chaos ruled Karachi after news spread about Ms Bhutto’s death. The ensuing violence in the Sindh metropolis claimed at least five lives while more than 150 vehicles, some petrol pumps and a hospital were set ablaze.

The city descended into anarchy as armed mobs came out in the streets, to be joined later by gangsters, holding up panicked people stuck in traffic jams on major roads.

The traffic came to a standstill after hundreds of thousands of people, anticipating violence, fled their offices and sought to reach their homes. Law-enforcers were nowhere to be seen.

As fearful citizens made calls to inquire about the safety of their friends and family and learn about the traffic situation, the telecommunications networks jammed because of overloading.

This sparked off rumours, further fuelling panic and the sense of insecurity.

Bereft of their leader, the commitment of the foot soldiers of the PPP to Pakistani democracy is now open to question. Beneath the anguished rioting is also a disturbing undercurrent of Sindh separatism (the province of Sindh was Bhutto’s homeland and her political stronghold).

The fatal deficiencies of ability and/or will displayed by Musharraf’s military-backed government in protecting the democratic parties, their leaders, and the process itself are now a matter of dismayed speculation.

And beneath it all is the horrified realization that Pakistan’s fragile democratic processes are nakedly vulnerable to attack not only by extremist Islamist forces.

That Pakistan’s democratic process could apparently unravel so quickly with the death of one person gives a sense that Pakistan’s democratic process is so weak, so compromised, and so mismanaged that its basic viability as a vehicle for national unity and civil society is called into question.

That weakness is not only fueling Islamist extremism. It’s also fueling radicalism and separatism. And disillusionment with democracy.

That, I think, accounts for the deep dismay, indeed fear, expressed in the English-language Pakistani media even by people who were no fans of Benazir Bhutto.

Pakistani journalist Adil Najam wrote on his influential blog All Things Pakistan:

I, like most Pakistanis, am still too numb with shock and grief to think coherently about what has happened or what the implications of this are for teh country and for the world. But this I know, whether you agreed with her political positions or not you cannot but be in shock. Even as I type these lines I am literally shaking.

Aftab Khan Sherpao, who broke with Bhutto to set up his own political faction, was quoted by Dawn as follows:

Asked if elections would be possible in such circumstances, the former two-time chief minister of the NWFP said, “I don’t think so. This (Ms Bhutto’s death) will lead to more violence and beneficiaries of destabilisation would join in.”

Pakistan was expecting that an unconstitutional backroom deal brokered by the United States with the acquiescence of a politically crippled president would somehow survive its way through the sausage grinder of opposition by the secular judiciary, the intelligence services, and Islamist forces, wind its way through an opaque, rigged parliamentary process, survive whatever street demonstrations got thrown at it, and emerge as a new, viable Pakistani polity.

Maybe that was hoping for too much. Maybe Pakistan’s democrats realize that now.

Pakistan will survive.

But its democratic aspirations may not be so lucky.

People have been eager to point the finger at Musharraf and/or the intelligence services for conniving in Bhutto’s assassination.

I’m more inclined toward General Zinni’s take, which is that extremist Islamist elements wanted to put paid both to an American client and to Pakistani secular democracy, and create a crisis which would boost the strategic fortunes of groups like al Qaeda.

For Musharraf personally, the assassination looks like a disaster. At best he looks like a mug, at worst a murderer, in any case a like a lousy president in a country grappling with a national crisis.

Nawaz Sharif, now Pakistan’s leading opposition politician, has already called on Musharraf to resign and that could easily turn into the price that Pakistan’s military is willing to pay to ratchet down the domestic crisis.

It’s impossible to divine what calculations go on in the black heart of Pakistan’s intelligence services, and they are doubtless not shedding any tears over the death of Bhutto. But their future actions may provide some clues as to their complicity—and their commitment to Pakistan’s civil society and willingness to engage with and accommodate democratic forces.

In the coming days, an important indicator will be whether the intelligence services and the army decide to take seriously this affront to their pretensions as stewards of Pakistan’s security.

Also, if they do decide to do more than incarcerate some symbolic offenders in an attempt to appease domestic and international opinion, it will be interesting to see whether Pakistan’s soldiers and spooks can exploit their close relationship with Islamist groups to punish the offenders against Pakistan’s law, order, and society, and at the same time thread the needle between law enforcement, suppression, and oppression more successfully than the United States has done in that part of the world.

As for Nawaz Sharif, with his main rival, Benazir Bhutto, out of the way, it remains to be seen if he can successfully negotiate the now-empty tightrope of Pakistan’s opposition politics to political—and personal—survival.

He’d better not stare down at the abyss beneath his feet.

Picture of unrest in Lahore after Benazir Bhutto's assassination from the BBC

Friday, December 21, 2007

A Tale of Two Hajs

One happened, the other didn’t.

Together, they shed some light on the nature of Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Middle East affairs.

The first was something of a foreign affairs bombshell: Saudi Arabia’s invitation to Iran’s President Ahmadinejad to join this year’s invitation that Ahmadinejad accepted with alacrity.

From the Teheran Times:

Saudi King Abdullah invited Ahmadinejad to attend the annual pilgrimage when he participated in the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council (PGCC) summit in Doha on November 30. It is the first time that an Iranian president is formally invited to attend the Hajj pilgrimage.

The standard narrative in America is that Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran are implacable opponents, using their oil revenues to fuel a battle for hegemony in the Middle East.

Well, maybe not.

Nevertheless, Muslims and their quaint but icky and intimidating rituals—as well as the possibility for normalized relations between Iran and any pro-Western state—are so far from the U.S. consciousness that the confusing factor of a haj olive branch from Saudi Arabia to Iran—and its acceptance--hasn’t been adequately covered in the U.S. press.

It’s all over the Middle East news services, of course, and in the U.K. the Beeb, indeed, took note:

An official said the invitation was an important event in Saudi-Iranian ties.

"It is the first time in the history of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia that the king of this country invites a president of the Islamic republic to make the pilgrimage to Mecca," said presidential aide Ali Akbar Javanfekr.

Since Stratfor and I agree, I will quote from them:

Given the ethnic, sectarian and geopolitical tensions between the two nations, a Saudi monarch inviting an Iranian head of state to make the Hajj is a major development. ... Since the Saudis are conferring an honor upon the Iranians that would not have happened unless the two sides had reached -- or are close to reaching -- a modus vivendi on Iraq and other issues, Ahmadinejad's trip represents a sort of political Hajj.

The analysis makes some good points about Iran’s promising efforts—with apparent U.S. acquiescence--to achieve recognition as a regional power with legitimate as well as significant interests in the Middle East.

The only U.S. outlet that seemed to take notice of this major event in Middle East affairs was the Christian Science Monitor.

The subtitle of its report--Are US Arab allies playing 'good cop' with Ahmadinejad to US 'bad cop'?--indicates to me that the Monitor is regurgitating the line planted courtesy of Condoleezza Rice and the realist foreign policy team, meant to obfuscate the fundamental realignment of Middle East affairs that is taking place and provide political cover by claiming that we are merely pursuing the traditional route of confrontation with Iran in new, skillful, and inexpressibly subtle ways.

Whether the Saudis are leading a paralyzed U.S. foreign policy establishment (my opinion) or following an enlightened U.S. realpolitik line on Iran policy is still an open question, but undoubtedly the Saudis are energetically pursuing rapprochement with Teheran...and Teheran is responding.

The second haj invitation was more of a damp squib.

Saudi Arabia’s ambassador visited deposed Supreme Court chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry at his residence (where he’s under house arrest) to invite him to join the haj.

Chaudhry firmly declined:

ISLAMABAD, Dec 7: Saudi Ambassador Ali Awadh Al-Asseri met deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry at his heavily-guarded official residence here on Friday. Justice Iftikhar has been under house arrest since the imposition of emergency on Nov 3.

Although there was no official word on the deposed chief justice’s first meeting with a foreign diplomat, there were rumours that the ambassador had delivered a message from the government with an offer that he would be duly accommodated if he withdrew the demand for reinstating the judges who had not taken the oath under the Provisional Constitution Order.

According to a source close to Justice Iftikhar’s family, during the hour-long meeting, the Saudi envoy also extended an invitation to him to perform Haj which the latter politely declined, saying that his presence in the country was necessary in the current situation.
Political observers are attaching great significance to the meeting, keeping in view the reported role played by the Saudi government in facilitating the return of Nawaz Sharif to Pakistan.

Mr Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, it may be mentioned, had not been allowed to meet the deposed chief justice.

Chaudhry is the individual at the heart of Pakistan’s judge-and-lawyer driven democracy movement—as opposed to the faux democratic hackery known as the January 8 parliamentary elections being conducted by Pervez Musharraf with the enthusiastic participation of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif and under the eye of the United States.

The most blatant and fundamental pieces of extralegal flummery to date in Pakistan have been Musharraf’s attempt to imprison Chaudhry on trumped-up charges earlier this year and, when that didn’t work, Mush’s effort to remove, under the guise of a state of national emergency, both Chaudhry and the activist and pro-democracy Supreme Court he led--just as it was poised to disallow Musharraf's election back in November (Musharraf, in violation of the constitution, had run for his second term as president while as a uniformed officer).

Letting Musharraf keep the presidency he won illegally is critical to the deal as understood by Musharraf, Bhutto, and the United States, and so is turning a blind eye toward the rape of the supreme court and a cocking a deaf ear toward the calls that the deposed judges be reinstated.

It was assumed that the Saudis were trying use a haj to sweettalk or armtwist Chaudhry into abandoning his uncompromising stance on Musharraf’s illegal presidency, and forestall an overall upsetting of the political applecart by the intransigent judiciary.

Some quarters saw the invitation simply as a gift to Musharraf and a way out of the constitutional and legal dilemma he clumsily constructed for himself.

Others saw the invite giving Saudi Arabia’s favorite, Nawaz Sharif a way out of the corner he has painted himself into-- Sharif has staked out a (relatively) extreme position, insisting on restoration of the judiciary—and fully re-enter into Pakistan’s political life after the parliamentary elections.

In any case, the invitation was roundly condemned as an example of Saudi interference in Pakistan’s internal affairs.

Whatever the motivation, the invitation didn’t take, seemingly establishing Pakistan’s secular, middle-class democratic movement outside the conservative Muslim discourse Saudi Arabia prefers, and demonstrating the awkward and dangerous disconnect between Pakistan’s corrupted political process and the increasingly militant and alienated democratic movement.

Dawn reported:

According to the source, Justice Iftikhar told the Saudi ambassador that he considered himself the rightful chief justice and the first thing he would do at the end of his detention would be to go to and sit in the Supreme Court. He said that he was ready to render any sacrifice or to wage struggle for the just cause of independence of the judiciary and restoration of the pre-PCO judiciary. Despite all the difficulties, the chief justice said, judges and lawyers would not abandon their struggle for independence of the judiciary.

Middle East security policy is undergoing a major realignment.

Whether it’s driven by U.S. realpolitik, Saudi Arabia’s desire to move beyond the rhetoric of the global war on terror to a doctrine based on conservative Muslim-oriented regimes distancing themselves from the U.S. and therefore (hopefully) more stable, or inchoate non-aligned democratization remains to be seen.

But in any case, Saudi Arabia’s haj diplomacy may be recognized as a turning point.
Photo from Sri Lanka Daily News

Monday, December 17, 2007

Pakistan's Elections

It's All Over But the Squealing

...About the vote rigging, that is.


IRI has its numbers and the ISI apparently has their own.

And perhaps political strength and electoral success are two different things.

According to a report in Dawn, reflecting assumptions in early December, when the parliamentary elections are done and the seats divied up, the PML-Q--though excoriated as the despised creature of Musharraf's bankrupt rule-- is expected to come out on top, with Bhutto's PPP in second place and Sharif’s PML-N a distant fourth.

This is a snapshot from approximately the same period as the U.S. International Republican Institute poll cited below.

The source? Apparently leaks from Pakistan's intelligence agencies.

As reported in
Dawn :

These estimates which the PPP and the PML-N sources here believe have been drawn up by the intelligence agencies in the first week of the current month have
given the PML-Q 115 seats followed by PPP (90), MMA (45), PML-N (40), MQM (20) and ANP (12) in a house of 342.These estimates are said to have been made on the basis of the ‘strength’ of each party constituency-wise plus individual
candidate’s own ‘ability’ to pull voters and the political affiliation of the
nazims in the constituency.

The sources who did not wish to be identified alleged that the official plan was to rig the polls in such a way as to deny a clear majority to any of the contesting parties so as to place President Pervez Musharraf in a position of cobbling together a coalition of his choice which, according to the American script, is a coalition of the PML-Q and the PPP.


They, however, did not rule out the possibility of the original official estimates undergoing further changes in the remaining three weeks to the polls which could swing in favour of the PPP and the PML-N

It’s an interesting situation where the intelligence agency doesn’t just manage expectations; it announces them.

We’ll find out in early January how accurate the math of the intelligence agencies is.

Now back to the original post.

The latest International Republican Institute polling is out and the intended (and unintended) message is Watch Out, Benazir!

The Western press has given a lot of play to the finding that two-thirds of the respondents think that the January parliamentary poll will be rigged by Musharraf.

But here’s what everybody should be thinking about:

In a party vote election test, PPP topped the field, garnering 30 percent in the national sample. PML-N was second with 25 percent and PML-Q came in third with 23 percent.

In other words, in the end-November snapshot, even if the elections were fair, Bhutto’s PPP would only garner 30% of the vote.

That makes one appreciate how canny a move it was for Musharraf—whose support has dwindled to a Bush-like base of the low twenties, both personally and for his PML-Q creation—to permit Nawaz Sharifk, probably with Saudi direction and support, to return from Saudi Arabia and energize the PML-N.

Sharif’s numbers in September—a soaring upward trend that I reported on—were apparently triggered by the favorable publicity surrounding his previous attempt to return and the subsequent expulsion, and have deflated somewhat since then.


In head-to-head match-ups, Bhutto topped the list with Sharif coming in second and Musharraf in third. However, over the course of the poll being taken, Bhutto's numbers were trending down, indicating that they had been higher. Sharif, on the other hand, trended upwards over the course of the fieldwork. IRI's last poll (August 29-September 13, 2007) was taken in the days leading-up to his first return and subsequent deportation, and Nawaz's numbers were very high.

However, after he was deported, his numbers deflated, as is reflected in this most recent poll. IRI's fieldwork for this poll was largely completed before Sharif's most recent return and it does not capture the extent to which his popularity increased as a result. However, his numbers did tick up slightly in the portion of the fieldwork conducted after his return, indicating that he is now trending upwards.[emph. added]

So, the real concern for Benazir Bhutto is not necessarily that the Musharraf’s harpies will dash the fruits of democracy from Pakistan’s lips.

The real concern is that Bhutto’s limited popularity, coupled with the challenge from Sharif, and with an added dollop of vote rigging that might not even be necessary, will keep her PPP from claiming the top spot in the election...and prevent her from feasting on the power she has been thirsting for since the 1990s.

Parliamentary system, doncha know.

Top party in parliament gets a chance to form a government and anoint its chief as Prime Minister.

There’s no chance that the PPP will get close to an absolute majority.

Zero chance even with the fairest elections on this planet.

What Bhutto really needs is to come out of the election with the most MPs in order to commence the horsetrading needed to put her in the Prime Minister slot.

That means she needs to beat Nawaz Sharif and the PML-N—not Pervez Musharraf and his dead-ender PML-Q. So the number that matters isn’t Musharraf’s fading 23%; it’s Sharif’s growing 25% vs. Bhutto’s sagging 30%.

If by fair means or foul, Bhutto falters at the finish, she has promised to howl about vote rigging and bring her supporters in the streets and the banner of a color-coded democracy revolution.
But it won’t look that great if what she’s really howling about how Nawaz Sharif edged her party out...after she sold out the popular democracy movement by betraying its plan for an election boycott.

As I posted previously, with Sharif and a genuine democracy movement in the picture, Bhutto invoking people power might come off less as a principled protest and more like a selfish and self-serving power play...perhaps not the best move for Ms. 30%...and in fact one that might play into the hands of Musharraf and his cronies.

So, Bhutto had better play her hand carefully, during and after the elections, and inside the smoke-filled room, to gain the coveted PM post.

Dealing with the religious parties is off the table.

So Bhutto will have to deal either with Sharif’s PML-N...or Musharraf’s PML-Q.

That is what is presumably behind Bhutto’s shocking statement that she was willing to deal with Musharraf...and, in the most obvious quid pro quo imaginable, ignore the dismissal of the anti-Musharraf supreme court justices.

Musharraf reciprocated, but kept a key political lever close at hand:

Under the constitution passed after Musharraf seized power in 1999, Bhutto is barred from serving as prime minister as she has held the office twice. But he said: “If she wins enough votes, we may reconsider the third-term condition.”

In any event, Musharraf seems to be in pretty good shape, according to Dawn’s political correspondent:

In their election campaign, the PPP leaders are not saying anything against President Musharraf, while the PML-N, though critical of the general who overthrew the Nawaz Sharif government in October 1999, is not seeking his ouster any more....The PPP leadership did target Gen Musharraf in the beginning, but now it has changed the focus.

A time came when Ms Bhutto declared that her party would not accept Gen Musharraf even without uniform, and demanded the pre-Nov 3 judiciary should decide the issue of the general’s eligibility for the second term as president.

However, the PPP chairperson changed her stance on both the issues....Though Mr Sharif has announced that he will not like to work as prime minister with President Musharraf, he is not talking of his ouster, an objective he has been working for years. This has been noticed even by Mr Sharif’s colleagues.

A perspicacious op-ed pointed out:

Musharraf’s best interest thus lies not in sponsoring rigging, or even conniving at it, but in ensuring that it does not take place at all. Post-election manoeuvres for power in a hung parliament should enable him to seek a compromise solution to the judicial crisis which pacifies the legal community, vindicates the honour of the judges and, equally important, reasserts the principle of their accountability.

There is concern that Musharraf will pull a boneheaded play and rig the elections in a heavy-handed manner in favor of the profoundly unpopular pro-government PML-Q, provoking street demonstrations and imposition of martial law.

But Musharraf’s involvement in the intensive political maneuvering involving Bhutto and Sharif’s return, his efforts to legitimize the elections by shedding his uniform and lifting the state of emergency, and the simple fact that two of his sworn enemies are inside the country leading energized political factions would seem to militate against such a blunder.

And by letting Nawaz Sharif return, Musharraf seems to have consciously purchased himself some insurance against a color-coded revolution pushed unilaterally by Bhutto.

If anybody’s acting like an over-the-top dingbat, it’s Benazir Bhutto, courtesy of the Western media:

Any attempt to rig next month's parliamentary elections could lead to anarchy and help Islamic militancy spread further, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto said on Monday.

"If the militancy spreads and if, God forbid, the country disintegrates, it would become another Afghanistan where people are living like refugees in camps," Bhutto told a crowd of about 12,000 supporters during a campaign stop in Hyderabad.

Her doomsday scenario seems unlikely...

Anyway, the current prognosis would be Bhutto as Prime Minister, Musharraf as President, the judicial crisis papered over by mutual consent...and Sharif’s party acting as a check on Bhutto while promoting the conservative, cautiously religious, and rather anti-American policies that the country seems to want.

Sharif’s party is participating in the parliamentary elections, though Sharif personally is barred from seeking a seat. Sharif is touring the country on behalf of his party’s slate, breathing fire at Musharraf and insisting that he (unlike Bhutto) will not entertain any alliance with the strongman who removed him from power and exiled him.

In Pakistani politics, the general rule is never say never and, in particular, never believe a politician who swears he will never deal with his sworn enemy.

However, my personal opinion is that Sharif may be happy to play the role of leader of the principled opposition, refusing to join a coalition with the PPP, and thereby forcing Bhutto into a suicidal embrace with Musharraf—the most unpopular politician in the country—and his MPL-Q in order to gain power as prime minister.

Certainly, any politician that straps him or herself to the political anvil that is Pervez Musharraf and the status quo is in for a bumpy ride.

There is one graph in the IRI poll on the concerns motivating voters that I think deserves some play:

Percentage of Pakistani electorate that will vote on basis of inflation concerns: 53%.

Add the poverty and unemployment numbers brings the lunchpail figure to 75%.

Terrorism: 6%.

That’s right. 6%.

In a country that is represented in the Western media as teetering on the brink of collapse fueled by militant extremist Islamicism, only 6% of the electorate feels that terrorism is important enough to determine its vote. 75% are worried about economic issues.

Sharif’s statements on pro-Taleban, pro-al Qaeda, and militantly Islamic strains in Pakistan’s society are apparently more in tune with the popular mood than Bhutto’s America friendly “we will fight them on the beaches” anti-terrorist bravado.

In recent days, Sharif has criticized the assault on the Lal Masjid mosque, condemned aggressive military tactics in the border areas, dissed U.S. influence over Pakistan’s security policy, and called for the release of Pakistan’s favorite nuclear proliferator and national hero A.Q. Khan from house arrest.

Here’s a flavor of what’s going on in the hustings:

Comparing his regime with the present one, Nawaz said that Pervez Musharraf obtained dictation from the US, whereas he received five phone calls from the US administration but did not bow to the foreign will. India made five nuclear explosions, in response, Pakistan made six atomic explosions, he told the gathering.

Got that? India 5, Pakistan 6. Pakistan wins!

How about some more numbers:

During [Sharif’s] regime, the flour was available at the rate of seven rupees per kilogram but today this most inevitable commodity was not available even for a triple sum, Nawaz said referring to recent flour shortage. "The price of bread during our government was one rupee only but today its price is above four rupees," he said.

From a report in the Pakistan News:

He said the great benefactor of Pakistan Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan was lying on the death bed because of victimization by the present rulers. In Karachi, the government conspired with the MQM to slaughter the people. In the Lal Masjid operation, the limbs of innocent children, less than five years of age, were scattered by use of bombs. In Swat, people were facing bullets and their abodes were being destroyed with bombardment and rocketing.

In a perhaps unintentionally revealing piece of Pinglish, the Pakistan Times reported:

PML-N also calls for making to deal with the menace of terrorism including involvement of the people of respective tribal areas in the politics process.

Pandering? Fer sure.

But here’s what the IRI polling said:

Voters also expressed concern regarding rising Islamic fundamentalism; 66 percent agreed that religious extremism was a serious problem in Pakistan. Further, 63 percent said that the Taliban and Al Qaida operating in the country was also a serious concern. However, only 40 percent of Pakistanis supported the Army operations in NWFP and Tribal Areas and just 15 percent felt that Pakistan should cooperate with the United States in its War on Terror. [emph. added]

Hmmm. 15%. That means even if the PPP—party of our pro-American savior, Benazir Bhutto—monopolized support for the war on terror, only half of its 30% share of the electorate supports the GWOT that Benazir has pledged to fight on our behalf.

Read what this columnist for the determinedly moderate, democratic, and secular periodical Dawn had to say:

The dangers facing Pakistan are real. We have to guard against the spread of religious militancy because its spread negates the idea of Pakistan as presented by the country’s founding fathers. But we also have to realise that the rise of religious militancy is a response to the failure of the state to protect its democratic ethos. The Taliban have their own war to fight in Afghanistan and whether that war is a just war or not is for the people of Afghanistan to decide. We should have no truck with the Taliban. At the same time we should not be pushed into fighting America’s war against our own people in the tribal areas.

True, the Americans are paying us to fight this war. But hasn’t the time come for us to decide whether American largesse is worth more than the wounds that we ourselves are inflicting on Pakistani nationhood? ... We will not step out of the shadows of the Musharraf era unless we rethink our commitment to America’s war in Afghanistan.

Decoupling from the War on Terror is no longer just an issue of Pakistani nationalism or local Islamicism.

It’s also a display of disgust with military rule...and an expression of growing, activist democratic sentiment in Pakistan’s secular, educated middle class.

That’s probably why the United States finds it much easier to embrace Benazir Bhutto than Pakistan’s genuine democracy movement driven by judges, lawyers, and journalists outside of the political structure.

And that’s probably why, even if the Musharraf—Bhutto deal goes through, America is not going to get what it wants out of Pakistan.

Friday, December 07, 2007

We Interrupt This Blog To Announce the End of the World


China Matters will be on hiatus until December 16.

Meanwhile, here’s some economic news to chew on.

That might involve the end of the world.

Economics’ premier bear, Nouriel Roubini, is in clover right now, having correctly predicted the subprime/housing crunch, the looming U.S. recession, and global credit/liquidity woes.

Beyond the revelation that we are about to experience a Minsky Moment, titillating to the non-economists who know Minsky’s only as a burlesque house, Roubini’s thesis as I understand it is that the bursting of the U.S. real estate bubble has revealed fundamental flaws in how the markets evaluated and traded non-transparent, risky investments; that the already-spooked international financial markets are going to have to deal not only with bad paper but huge insolvent institutions thanks to the upcoming U.S. recession; and the current situation where the international system is afraid to lend money will turn into one where there isn’t much money available to lend for real world investment as well as Wall Street derring-do.

Prognosis: not good.

On his blog he quotes the mordant wit of a commenter:

“Gold is for optimists. I’m diversifying into canned goods.”

Roubini’s current priority is beating anybody who believes in decoupling—the ability of Europe and/or Asia to ride out the U.S. recession or even make things better for everybody by stepping up and replacing weakening U.S. demand with their own domestic demand--around the ears with a rolled-up newspaper.

Roubini believes that China is in for some rough times:

Paradoxically China is the one country that has, so far, decouple the most – both in real and financial terms from the U.S. but it will also be the first and most serious victim of a U.S. led recession. ... China is mostly exporting low-priced consumer goods to the U.S. and the recoupling of China will occur soon once the US consumer recession is in full swing. Thus, the biggest victim of a US consumer led recession will be the country – China - that, so far, has decoupled the most from the US. And for China a fall in its growth rate from 11% towards 6-7% would be the equivalent of a "hard landing" as China – to maintain its social and political stability given its widening income and wealth inequality – needs to grow at least 10% a year in order to move about 15 millions poor farmers from the rural to the urban and industrial sector every year. No wonder that Chinese officials have started to express serious concerns about the current sharp slowdown in Chinese exports to the US, from an annualized growth rate of over 20% in Q1 to a rate of 12.4% in Q3 of this year ("If demand in the US drops further, Chinese exporters will be devastated by a rapid and continuous fall in orders," a Chinese official report said).
And once there is a sharp growth slowdown in China the next victims of this recoupling will be East Asia and commodity exporters. There is a current myth among some analysts that the increased amount of trade between East Asian economies shelters them from a US slowdown. But in spite of the growing intra-Asian trade the cyclical and structural dependence of East Asia on US growth is now larger than five or ten years ago. The reason – as analyzed in detail in recent work by, for example,
the Asian Development Bank – is as follows: it used to be the case a decade ago that East Asian economies tended to export directly final goods to the US. But the rise of China has radically changed the Asian global production and supply chain: now East Asian countries tend more to produce inputs and intermediate goods and raw materials that are exported to China; in turn China, given its lower labor cost, processes these inputs and assembles them into final goods that are exported to the US. Thus, in spite of growing intra-Asian trade the dependence of Asia on US growth is now larger than any time before, both structurally and cyclically. So the argument that Asia can decouple from the US because of this greater intra-Asian trade is altogether flawed. Rather, once China slows down the Chinese demand for these Asian intermediate inputs and its demand for raw materials from Asia, Latin America and Africa will fall. Thus, you will observe both a slowdown in Asian growth and a sharp fall in commodity prices that will hurt all commodity exporters.

Some argue that, while a US hard landing may hurt China and Asian economies, there is wide room for domestic demand and non-US demand to maintain the growth of Asia. But this is another myth that has little basis. The role of domestic demand in China’s growth is very modest. You have an economy where exports are 40% of GDP; where investment is 50% of GDP and, leaving aside housing investment, most of such investment is directed towards the productions of more exportable goods; where the current account surplus has gone from $20b in 2002 (2% of GDP) to an expected $300 billion plus this year (12% of GDP). China and Asia strongly depend on trade and on trade to the US. And, as recent research by Morgan Stanley shows, there is a very low probability of major improvements in domestic demand or non-US external demand. [emph. added]

I think the outlook for the United States is a symbolic bailout for borrowers, and then some more meaningful help for lenders to help them get some of the portfolio of atrocious loans off their books.

But it doesn’t seem like this will solve the fundamental problem: that hundreds of billions of dollars worth of loans were written on the assumption that they could be securitized and passed along in the “there’s always a higher price and/or a greater fool” exuberance of a bubble market.

One thing I think we can look forward to is low interest rates, as the U.S. government hopes against hope that cutting the prime will suck more borrowers and lenders in the market and keep the economy from slipping into a deeper recession.

Low interest rates means a weak dollar and weaker imports.

Roubini believes that fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, and the Chinese economy has to grow--or else.

I dunno.

Well, if the leadership of China's mixed economy can't handle a slowdown in growth and maintain social stability, they really have no reason to keep their jobs.

I think they'll be working double time to mitigate the social and political fallout.

My layman’s take is that the Chinese government will not be happy with the loss of value of their colossal dollar portfolio but, hey that’s what reserves are for. And they’ll probably have to expend some more of that rainy day reserve dealing with the economic and social consequences of an economic downturn.

At least in the past, the main macro-economic concern of China's Joe Sixpack was averting the erosion of savings through inflation and expecting government programs or forebearance for assistance in getting through hard times.

Since most of China's economy is non-state, the traditional channels for handouts don't exist anymore, but that doesn't mean that the Chinese government won't find a way to keep income and employment from dropping below crisis levels.

Meanwhile, as China tries to look more like the United States, the U.S. banking system may end up looking more like China.

It would be rather ironic if the United States joined Japan and China in the club of countries trying to work out from under a mountain of bad loans that drag down the financial sector and, with it, the economy.

The tragedy is, even if it won’t take decades, like is happening in China and Japan, it will take years.

And that means Chinese exporters are in for some rough sledding.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Astounding But True: The Road to the Iran NIE Ran Through Pyongyang

In the wake of the release of the Iran National Intelligence Estimate debunking the claims of a ongoing nuclear weapons program--claims that served as the justification for our campaign to isolate, sanction, and weaken Iran--China Matters reminds an astounded world that we predicted the collapse of the Bush administration’s strategy of confronting Iran back in October.

What I actually wrote was:

To summarize, the multilateral, sanctions-based united front against Iran is deaddeaddeaddeaddeaddead.

Dead, OK?

It was a situation that was pretty clear only if one saw how determinedly key players in other capitals were pushing back against our Iran policy.

It’s an unsurprising but regrettable fact of life that the United States—and its opinion leaders and shapers—find it difficult to understand an international situation in which our framing and priorities are not necessarily decisive.

The true surprise is how abruptly we kicked the props out from under the Israeli government.

For hardliners in Israel and the United States, asserting the existential Iranian nuclear threat to Israel was crucial to keeping the foreign policy realists at bay.

By undermining the position that our Iran policy has to be subordinated to the premise that Iran posed an imminent and implacable threat to Israel, the NIE opens the door to engagement with Tehran that might remove Israel—and reflexive U.S. support for its independent nuclear deterrent and its militarized regional security policy—away from the center of U.S. strategic thinking for the Middle East.

Maybe Secretary Rice has succeeded in imposing a new look at Middle East policy on the Bush administration; and maybe that explains why Frank Gaffney was squealing like a stuck pig about the Annapolis conference.

The unexpected interaction between North Korea and the Middle East—the furor over Israel’s bombing of the purported nuclear site in Syria—and its role in the efforts of conservatives in the United States and Israel to construct a nuclear crisis-driven narrative for Middle East diplomacy, is addressed in separate post from November, Uzi Arad’s Astounding Tales .

There I addressed the abortive attempt to create the appearance of a proliferation crisis in Syria and wrote:

But it turns out that the key foreign policy conflict in Washington isn’t between “bomb Syria and/or Iran” and “don’t bomb Syria and/or Iran”.

It’s between proceeding with the same policy of regional escalation that led us into Iraq or discreetly dialing back to the old Palestine-centric approach to solving Israel’s security problem—something I’d call creeping Bakerism.

And if the Palestinian issue is accepted in Washington as the true root of Israel’s problems, then the Iranian issue can be handled separately, as a wary negotiation and accommodation between the world’s only hyperpower and an important regional Islamic player.

So maybe the path to understanding the Middle East lies through Asia. Funny, huh?

Below is the full text of the October 26 post.

Iran Recapitulates North Korea—Not Iraq

October 25:

Speaking at a news conference after talks with Portuguese President Anibal Cavaco Silva, Putin pointed to the long negotiations with North Korea that led to an agreement earlier this year for that communist nation to begin dismantling its nuclear facilities. "Not long ago it didn't seem possible to resolve the situation with North Korea's nuclear program, but we have practically solved it relying on peaceful means," he said.

October 11:

In the overseas edition of the People's Daily -- the ruling Communist Party's mouthpiece -- China's former ambassador to Iran said six-party negotiations hosted by Beijing set an example for engaging Tehran, which is pressing ahead with nuclear development that Western powers say could give it weapons capability.

Keen observers will notice a pattern here.Russia and China—two of the five veto holders on the Security Council—want the North Korea deal to serve as the template for Iran.

What does this mean?

It means that world opinion has abandoned the Bush administration on the creation of a united front of coercion against Iran.

This is exactly what happened last year, in a development apparently only noticed by yours truly, after the detonation of the North Korean bomb.

Condi Rice criss-crossed the globe in a futile quest to cobble together an international coalition that would employ the mechanism of the U.N. sanctions regime backed by Proliferation Security Initiative to institute a destabilizing blockade of North Korea.

The effort finally collapsed at the APEC summit in Hanoi, when President Bush got the definitive word that China and even South Korea, our befuddled second-tier ally, wouldn’t sign on to the effort.

Instead of the United States pulling the strings as an army of righteous puppets encircled North Korea, our allies decided they didn’t have the confidence in our leadership.

More to the point, they weren’t assured of our solicitude in making sure they didn’t bear a disproportionate share of the political and geopolitical costs of a risky security initiative orchestrated by a great power with a truly terrible track record—and told Washington to play its own hand directly with Pyongyang.

There is a fundamental contradiction in unilateral policy trying to exploit the tools of multilateralism. Our callous incompetence in Iraq provided a practical demonstration of the risks. Our so-called allies don’t trust us. We have to get it front and stay in front.

As a result, Christopher Hill met with the North Koreans in Berlin and got the ball rolling. Although the negotiations continued under the aegis of the Six Party talks, it was always up to the United States to make the key concessions to demonstrate the viability of the process.

Given the absurd fiasco of the hardliner-orchestrated four-month delay in lifting the Banco Delta Asia sanctions, not only the North Koreans but the rest of the world community learned the importance of “trust yet verify” in gauging American commitment to any multilateral initiatives.

And it looks like America’s none-too-subtle attempts to leverage the power of its unilateral financial sanctions—actually targeting our recalcitrant “allies” who still insist on doing business with Iran, since we don’t do any business with Iran anyway—aren’t going to gain a lot of traction (the title of the LA Times article U.S. Move on Iran alienating for Europe pretty much says it all).

I would like to think that even observers overly enamored of the soft-power character of U.S. financial sanctions might recognize the fundamental and fatal contradiction at the heart of our policy—we don’t sanction the enemy, we have to sanction our allies because they don’t support our policy—but I’m not holding my breath.

To summarize, the multilateral, sanctions-based united front against Iran is deaddeaddeaddeaddeaddead.

Dead, OK?

What’s left is Dick Cheney’s Duke Nuke ‘em approach or North Korea-style engagement...or drift.

Never count a sociopathic monomaniac out, I guess, but with a year left in Bush’s lame duck administration, the hardliners bailing out in droves, and the uniformed services dead set against another Middle East war, the real choice is whether we will enter into a “grand bargain” with Iran or let the current toxic policy meander on.

Given the fundamentally dysfunctional character of our foreign policy, toxic meander is probably the way to go.

So what we’re going to get for the next 18 months is systematic well-poisoning by the hardliners working to sabotage direct negotiation with Tehran and preserve a debilitating state of hostility.

Current case in point: the North Korean nukes in Syria kerfluffle.

Even if there was a serious Syrian effort to develop some kind of nuclear thingee—and it’s still far from clear, as Jeffrey Lewis points out —it was years from fruition. It was probably worth observing but it certainly wasn’t worth bombing.

However, it was bombed, and is being pushed into the center of debate by hardliners in Tel Aviv and Washington.

The subtext, as I explained here , is to impose a zero sum them-or-us narrative of existential nuclear crisis on Middle Eastern affairs, in order to forestall bilateral talks between Washington and Tehran and a grand bargain that might help extricate us from our self-inflicted Iraq problem, but also remove Israel from its central place in Middle Eastern affairs as America’s only important ally.

The usual dingbat suspects in the House of Representatives are tossing Hail Maries in an attempt to use possible proliferation to Syria as justification for pulling the plug on the Six Party Agreement with North Korea, thereby discrediting the realists and negotiations with Axis of Evil nations.

But the practical hardliner goal isn’t war—it’s just to muddy the waters enough to keep peace from breaking out.

That’s what makes the current Iran flurry so tedious.Everybody’s bending over backward not to provide a sanctions process or casus belli that would empower the Washington hardliners.

Iran, Russia, China, and Europe are only interested in running out the clock until the Bush administration is safely out of office.

And maybe Israel, too.

Based on the way I look at things, this excerpt from Haaretz posted by the estimable Laura Rozen rang like a thunderclap:

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said a few months ago in a series of closed discussions that in her opinion that Iranian nuclear weapons do not pose an existential threat to Israel, Haaretz magazine reveals in an article on Livni to be published Friday. Livni also criticized the exaggerated use that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is making of the issue of the Iranian bomb, claiming that he is attempting to rally the public around him by playing on its most basic fears. Last week, former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy said similar things about Iran.

Because if significant elements of the Israeli government are ready to consider a world in which the Iranian nuclear threat is managed instead of destroyed—and Israel perhaps accepts a place under the US deterrent umbrella, mothballs its nukes, and abandons its regional ambitions for the miserable and depressing work of working on its local Palestinian problem—and leak their views to a receptive media and public, then the neocon dream of creative destruction of the Middle East is drawing its last breaths.

Unfortunately, of course, while there’s life there’s hope.

Hardline elements in Israel and the United States are only interested in keeping things screwed up enough that the Democrats can’t take the presidency and draw on the momentum of a credible, ongoing bipartisan realist process of rapprochement to normalize relations with Iran.

If they can screw up things badly enough, in another decade—an eyeblink to your far-sighted neocon--the door will be left open for genuine military conflict down the road when, maybe, the armed forces are done licking their Iraq wounds and are ready for another budget-fattening go at a land war on the Eurasian continent.

So we get this zombie kabuki, with the hardline advocates of a dead, discredited policy trying to infect the realists with their poison, and the realists are trying to pretend they’re zombies in order to avoid attack.

Outlook for 2007 and 2008: drift, danger, and dysfunction.

I think the reason the Left and Right fixate on the remote possibility of an Iran war is because it distracts us from the true nature of the U.S. situation: a distrusted, discredited, and marginalized hyperpower, unable to effectively play its military card, resented for its record of unremitting error and duplicity, feared as a dangerous, unpredictable and out-of-control force that must be cajoled, flattered, and accommodated at great cost while distracting the smaller and more vulnerable nations of the earth from the very immediate and real dangers that they now have to face alone.

We’re on the sidelines and nobody wants us to get back in the game.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

America’s Sharif Problem in Pakistan

U.S. Ignores Own Polling Showing Bhutto's Weakness and Sharif's Strength

Sitting side by side at a news conference, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, both former premiers, said that major opposition parties would set out their conditions for what would constitute free and fair elections. The move would allow the opposition to begin organizing for mass protests against Musharraf, though the two leaders still do not agree on whether any protests should be held before votes are counted or afterward.

Bhutto said the street demonstrations could be modeled on the peaceful 2004 Orange Revolution that overturned what was widely seen as a fixed vote in Ukraine. (LA Times, Dec. 4, 2007, emph. added)

Benazir Bhutto has a clear strategy.

Participate in the January 8 parliamentary elections under protest, contest the results with some street demonstrations, push Musharraf out of the presidency, and govern Pakistan from a strengthened prime minister office.

The United States has a clear strategy, also.

Back Bhutto and her political program, and rely on her to purge the army and security services of pro-Taliban forces and conduct counter-insurgency operations in the northwest and anti-al Qaeda security campaigns with renewed brio.

President Bush enraged conservative and nationalist Pakistan opinion on December 3 by poor-mouthing the other main opposition force in Pakistan—Nawaz Sharif—thereby overtly tipping America’s hand in favor of Benazir Bhutto in an interview with AP.

The president spoke cautiously about Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister Musharraf ousted in a 1999 coup who returned to Pakistan on Sunday from exile. "I don't know him well enough," Bush said. Sharif has good relations with Pakistan's religious parties and has raised doubts about his commitment to battling the Taliban and al-Qaida. "I would be very concerned if there was any leader in Pakistan that didn't understand the nature of the world in which we live today," Bush added.

The president's statement was important, because it effectively elevated Bhutto’s electoral success to a matter of U.S. policy and more than a quixotic and reckless democratization project by the neo-con rump still remaining in the Bush administration.

President Bush’s statement was also particularly blatant and clumsy because a very strong case can be made—using the U.S. government’s own data—that Nawaz Sharif is a heck of a lot more popular inside Pakistan than Benzair Bhutto.

The International Republican Institute is America’s tip of the spear for democratization activities.

IRI’s most recent polling for Pakistan is from September. A lot has happened since then, but I’m pretty sure that the trends their polling showed have been reinforced by events and strengthened instead of weakening.

No surprise about Musharraf’s sky high disapprovals. Cancer is more popular.

Here’s the key graph: the politician Pakistanis believe can best handle the nation's problems. Clicking on the graphics will enlarge them nicely.

For the graphically challenged, Sharif is significantly more popular than Bhutto and his popularity is trending upward while Bhutto is sagging.

And that’s before Sharif even returned to Pakistan and political life.

Here’s another one, showing relative political strength in Pakistan’s provinces.

Sharif owns Pakistan’s biggest province, Punjab. Again, this is before he returned.

This, by the way, directly contradicts Robert Novak’s most recent column —which was also noted inside Pakistan—“that Sharif is boycotting the January elections, in which he would lose badly.” [emph. added.]

The September snapshot show Sharif and Bhutto dominating in their home provinces of Punjab and Sindh, respectively and splitting support in the smaller provinces; as noted above, the overall trendline shows Sharif strengthening.

Has President Bush drunk his own democracy promotion Kool-Aid and is blindly and mistakenly nurturing Bhutto as part of an effort to promote a democratic civil society in Pakistan as a bulwark against jihadist extremism?

Fear not.

The Bush administration is exploiting the fervor, abilities, and media savvy of the neo-cons but good old-fashioned realpolitik is at the bottom of our Pakistan policy.

Pakistan’s army has little interest in massive counterinsurgency operations in the Northwest.

Pakistan’s intelligence service—the ISI—has little interest in trying to exterminate al Qaeda.

In both instances, Musharraf’s government is gingerly pursuing accommodation with. tribalist and radical forces.

And this policy is not doing very much for America’s program in Afghanistan, where the Taleban is gaining the upper hand and al Qaeda is finding new areas to operate.

Washington has clearly made the decision that the army and intelligence services must be brought to heel, both by reforming their personnel and doctrine, and by pushing them out of their central position in Pakistan’s politics.

There are only two things standing between the United States and the successful realization of its goals.

1. Nawaz Sharif
2. Reality

The most obvious indication of the U.S. desire to sideline the army and intelligence services has been the media campaign to depict Pakistan as a nation sliding into failed state status—in other words, a state that is so dangerous to the world and to America’s interests that overt interference by the United States on behalf of its client, Bhutto, can be defended and, indeed, insisted upon.

The basics of the campaign were laid out in the Newsweek cover story Pakistan: the most dangerous nation on earth. (This article, which reads like a Bhutto infomercial, ironically cited the IRI poll, indicating that its results are well-known to US decision-makers, but ignored its most significant findings).

The picture presented was of a society under siege from jihadists, ruled by a discredited autocrat, and in danger of sliding into anarchy and losing control of its precious nukes.

The nuclear factor is, of course, vital to this framing.

The United States can’t justify interference in Pakistan’s domestic politics just because we look askance at Musharraf’s lack of vigor and enthusiasm in supporting our aims in Afghanistan or his reluctance, as a Muslim leader of a Muslim nation, to assist us in trampling on Islamicist political and social movements.

But nuclear weapons—hey, that gives us plenty of skin in the game!

The apogee of absurdity in this argument was the notorious Frederic Kagan/Michael O’Hanlon op-ed in the New York Times, which posited that Pakistan was “tottering on the abyss” and proposed that we either kidnap Pakistan’s nukes and sequester them in New Mexico or create a Fort Apache nuclear redoubt somewhere in Pakistan guarded by Special Forces and reliable elements of the Pakistan army.

One can only assume that the purpose of this idiocy was not to offer a realistic solution.

The op-ed was, instead, intended as a piece of perception management: to create the understanding in the mind of the American public that, if Kagan and O’Hanlon are being driven to incoherent hysterics by the prospect of Nukes Gone Wild in Pakistan, then Pakistan must really have a nuclear problem.

This Pakistan is not the Pakistan that Pakistanis would recognize.

The Pakistan that Pakistanis recognize does acknowledge a worrisome problem with the growing organization and political clout of Islamicists.

But the real Pakistan also cares about inflation, democracy, an independent judiciary, and getting the army and the intelligence services out of politics.

As a matter of fact, the political crisis that Pakistan is facing is not runaway Islamist extremism; it’s a loss of confidence by its middle class in Musharraf’s rule and military control, as symbolized by the rebellion of the judiciary.

Collapse of the Pakistani nation and dispersal of its nuclear weapons into the hands of al Qaeda: not on the radar.

What is on the radar, by the way, is the collapse of popular faith in political parties such as Bhutto’s PPP as democratic actors or, for that matter, as anything other than vehicles for their leaders’ vaunting ambition.

That’s something that the U.S. might want to take into account when considering the popular support for our favorite rich, educated, pro-Western, tractable, and ethically challenged client.

But the key thing to realize is that, in the real Pakistan, Pervaiz Musharraf is not an idiot.

Which brings us to Nawaz Sharif.

Let’s say that you are an ambitious, able, and crafty army guy named Pervaiz Musharraf who realizes that the United States is twisting your arm to allow an ambitious, able, and crafty politician named Benazir Bhutto to participate in parliamentary elections for the purpose of pushing you and the army and the intelligence services out of power.

You know the only reason the U.S. acquiesced when you packed the judiciary and shredded the constitution to get your second term is to get the parliamentary elections off the ground as the mechanism as a vehicle for de facto regime change.

You suspect that once the parliamentary election is over and no matter what the results are, Bhutto, with the backing of the United States, is going to cry foul and trot out some color-coded revolution charade to complete her seizure of power.

You opinion polls are lower than whale dung and any electoral success you enjoy is going to be understandably, accurately, and indignantly attributed to vote-rigging.

The only way to blunt Bhutto’s drive for power is if another powerful, charismatic political leader is added to the mix.

Someone named Nawaz Sharif.

He's popular.

His power base is Pakistan's most populous and politically crucial province.

Sharif is religiously conservative, and will probably be willing to manage with finesse and understanding the key issues preoccupying the military and the intelligence services: handling the border problems with money and divide-and-conquer policies instead of the high-stakes high-cost military campaign the U.S. is pushing; and keeping a lid on al Qaeda and other extremists by a judicious mixture of accommodation and targeted suppression.

The Saudis like Sharif’s take on things and will provide financial and material support for his campaign and international diplomatic cover.

So Sharif is allowed to return to Pakistan, where he easily provides a challenge to Bhutto’s shaky credentials as the leader of the opposition.

If you’re counting on some piece of U.S. inspired democratic unrest on behalf of Bhutto after the elections, Sharif doesn’t even have to run. Fact is, it’s even better that way. Sharif can nurture his opposition cred by boycotting the elections.

If Bhutto tries to use mass demonstrations to challenge the election results and strengthen her hand vis a vis Musharraf, the government happily exacerbates the crisis to the point of gridlock, discrediting parliamentary democracy and letting Sharif pop up as the savior.

In fact, the government even has an incentive to cheat in the elections, to push Bhutto into a futile, self-destructive protest.


Sharif is no angel.

But to every segment of Pakistan society except for the PPP’s adherents, he’s probably better than Bhutto.

And, after January 8, if and when Bhutto tries to orchestrate demonstrations with the trappings of a color coded revolution to drive Musharraf from power, I think Sharif will have the army, the ISI, Saudi Arabia, and enough of the Pakistani public on his side.

And, in bad news for Bhutto, even if she doesn’t try to upset the apple cart with a color-coded revolution, I think the army and the ISI will find some way to force Bhutto from the scene with some provocation.

That’s obviously what the United States is worried about, and what they are working to pre-empt.

Take it away, Robert Novak !:

In a recent private conversation with a former Pakistani government official, Sharif said that he hoped a coup would not be necessary to take power but did not rule it out.

Sharif in control would fit the Saudi royal family's desire for support from nuclear power Pakistan but would be a nightmare for U.S. interests because of his Islamist ties. Bush has bet heavily on Musharraf, sending an estimated $150 million a month in aid. But Pakistan is resisting the Pentagon's request to send additional U.S. Special Forces to the Afghan border to help Pakistan's Frontier Corps fight terrorists. Pakistan's dedication to fighting the Islamist terrorists is diluted by officials sharing in gun-running and drug-running. The U.S. return on its massive investment in Pakistan has been disappointing, with hopes for more from Bhutto if vote-rigging does not stop her.

There it is, in one convenient package, is the effort to pre-emptively discredit the parliamentary elections as rigged, spuriously insist that Bhutto is Pakistan’s most popular politician, and lay the groundwork for a post-election people power campaign by Bhutto.

Most importantly, no doubt aware of Sharif's actual political strength vis a vis Bhutto, Novak advances the all-important strategy—backed yesterday by President Bush--to denigrate Sharif, arguably Pakistan’s most popular politician, as an unpopular, coup-hungry Islamicist in bed with Pakistan’s military and intelligence services.

That kind of framing might work for ignorant American audiences preoccupied with their own fears and priorities.

But I don’t think they’ll be shared within Pakistan, where American support and policies are virtually an anvil to political oblivion--and our disapproval bestows legitimacy and popularity.

It looks like now our only meaningful leverage—since we’ve declared almost open war on the army and intelligence services and decided to go toe-to-toe against the Saudis by trying to block their candidate—is Benazir Bhutto’s political organization, her appetite for power—and risk—and our multi-million dollar monthly anti-terrorism subsidy to the Pakistani army.

By mid-January, we’ll know how much that got us.

The full September 2007 IRI polling on Pakistan, from which the charts shown above are reproduced, can be found here.