Musharraf the Candidate

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Steve Clemons Pervez Musharraf Chestertown Maryland 24 October 2011.jpgPervez Musharraf, the former Army general turned (former) President of Pakistan, is a different man than the Musharraf who has now declared that he will again contest for his nation's presidency.  The earlier version of Musharraf would bristle at questions about his respect for democracy, about the relationship of the Taliban to the security organs of the government, and, well, just about anything.  Musharraf, before, was self-confident, a talker more than a listener, and personally intimidating.

The man who spoke to the students of Washington College on the eastern shore of Maryland yesterday evening struck a significant contrast to the man that so many believed had become a de facto dictator during his tenure as Pakistan's president.  Musharraf listened.  He met students and engaged them seriously.  He spoke to them like mature adults who were informed -- and didn't dumb down his commentary.

The former four-star general said that while he grew up "as a man of war", he now knew how to "construct the peace" in his neighborhood, even with India -- though he had a number of testy comments about India and what he considered to be its meddling in Afghanistan and its efforts to create an "anti-Pakistan Afghanistan."

Musharraf offered a sweeping historical narrative of why Afghanistan had become the hotbed of regional proxy conflicts and had since American disengagement after the "defeat of the Soviet Union in 1989" become a "total disaster."  His perspective on Pakistan's allies and strategic choices is forged in realpolitik -- in which Pakistan's interests actually ally well with many interests of the United States.  He said it was extremely frustrating and disheartening for Pakistan to watch the US tilt toward India after the demise of the Soviet Union -- even though Pakistan had helped the US and its proxies defeat the Soviets inside Afghanistan, thus in many ways triggering the end of the Cold War.

He suggested that weak political leadership inside Pakistan and the failure to align institutions, their objectives, and conduct could be resulting in rogue military and intelligence elements freelancing in ways that were detrimental to both Pakistan's and America's security.  He believes that bin Laden living in Pakistan represented a real intelligence failure for Pakistan -- and severe negligence, not complicity, is the explanation.  Interestingly, President Musharraf said that bin Laden is now dead -- and off the minds of people; what is not off their minds though is the violation of Pakistan's sovereignty.

Most of the questions I posed while chairing this meeting with President Musharraf were drawn from Washington College students -- and I'll be posting the video when it appears on the college website -- but I did ask Musharraf about his views on Pakistan's blasphemy law and the assassination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, on religious militancy, and whether if he was President of the United States, whether he would fire drone missiles at al Qaeda leaders.

Musharraf said that more than forty nations had blasphemy laws and that Pakistan was among many.  Religious extremism and militancy, he said, is often a manifestation of other social turmoil -- and that it would take time to urbanize, to educate, and liberalize a populations undergoing huge demographic shifts.  On the drone issue, Musharraf said that as a military man with a military objective -- if serving as the US President -- he might in fact decide to use drones.  He would, however, operate cautiously and carefully because of the obvious violations of sovereignty, which is deeply toxic to a nation's identity.

Musharraf's most compelling commentary focused on the importance of economic and political modernization -- the importance of exposing people to what was going on in the world and building the economy.  He kept referring to the strong economic growth rates that Pakistan had achieved during his term -- and that Pakistan was considered to be in "the next set" of eleven fast growing nations after the larger lead developing countries today.  He lamented the loss of pride and self-confidence of the Pakistan people in the current period and said that the political leadership was insolvent, corrupt, nepotistic, and failing.

There's much more that I'd like to share about Musharraf, who intends to make his first campaign trip back to Pakistan in March 2012 and until then is operating through Skype, Facebook, and other new social network media to build out his campaign and new political party.  He had just the day before spoken to a crowd of more than 3,000 Pakistanis via Skype -- and was proud that he now had more than 400,000 "fans" on Facebook.

I did push Musharraf privately on the democracy question, which he said a young Pakistani lady had posed to him that very day on a BBC event and program.  He was pushed on a number of fronts -- including the question of whether Pakistan could really be considered an ally of the United States anymore.  I'll write more about this democracy question when I post the Musharraf video. 

The former President didn't get irritated, or ruffled, or dismissive -- he got more deeply engaged and answered questions succinctly, posed questions to some of his student handlers, and spent the evening charming and chatting with several tables of college VIPs after his speech.  He was compelling and deeply informed on the details of global security and economic issues as well as many dimensions of state and global governance.

Last night with Musharraf reminded me of a time I secured Bill Clinton as a dinner speaker for a major Nixon Center event -- and the President (then) came to the cocktail party, sat down for dinner, gave a long and thorough speech, and hung out a bit after.  While I remember the content of that April 1995 speech, few others do; but almost everyone remembers how much time that night a sitting President of the United States spent at one dinner party.

In a more modest way perhaps, former President Musharraf did the same as Clinton for the Washington College community.  He gave those in the community and the students and professors a lot of time -- not because he actually had a lot of time -- but because he is out testing the new Musharraf, the listening Musharraf, the Musharraf concerned and interested in the tough and complex questions a public can pose.

And I have to say that much to my surprise, I was impressed with this version of the controversial former president of Pakistan.

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Steve Clemons is Washington editor at large for The Atlantic and editor of Atlantic Live. He writes frequently about politics and foreign affairs. More

Clemons is a senior fellow and the founder of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank in Washington, D.C., where he previously served as executive vice president. He writes and speaks frequently about the D.C. political scene, foreign policy, and national security issues, as well as domestic and global economic-policy challenges.

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