The Shah of Pakistan


Vali Nasr offers a troubling analogy:

The longer Musharraf stays in power the more Pakistan will look like Iran in 1979: an isolated and unpopular ruler hanging on to power only to inflame passions and bring together his Islamic and pro-democracy opposition into a dangerous alliance.

I keep veering between a sense that since this Pakistan business is one of the most important things going on right now I should write about it, and a sense that there's no reason for me to play fake Pakistan expert.

On the other hand, I do think this kind of talk from Nasr throws into sharp relief the nonsensical nature of the Bush administration's democracy-talk. If you want to create a reasonable interpretation of the "lack of democracy causes terrorism" theory then the one Nasr's bringing up here seems like by far the best candidate. You have your American-backed dictatorship, you have your popular anger at the dictatorship, and you have some of that anger being displaced onto the United States. Something like that certainly seems to have happened in Iran in the 1970s and it's a plausible account of at least some of what's going on in places like Pakistan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia today.

But even if you want to credit the Bush administration with a great deal of sincere belief in the desirability of spreading the blessings of democracy to Iraq, nothing they did ever addressed that dictatorship problem. Instead, democracy was always and everywhere seen as a tool to be used to displace troublesome regimes -- Iraq, Iran, Syria, the Palestinian Authority, North Korea. These weren't governments that were disfavored because they were undemocratic, they were targeted for democratization because they disfavored.

Now "reward your friends and punish your enemies" isn't a crazy approach to world affairs. But in this case it does run directly contrary to the entire theory of why democracy mattered. After all, you'd have to be a real idiot to turn into an anti-American radical because you didn't like Saddam Hussein or the Assads or the Mullahs in Iran. Opposition groups in those places you can expect to be friendly to America. It's in Egypt and Pakistan and Saudi Arabia that you need to worry. Those are the countries where lack of democracy can, in principle, lead to an anti-American backlash. But those are precisely the countries where Bush never did anything other than tinker around the edges always leaving it clear that incumbent regimes' red lines would be respected. That, though, is just backwards and stupid and has nothing to do with the nominal problem at hand.

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Matthew Yglesias is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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