Friday, December 28, 2007


"Democracy needs support, and the best support for democracy comes from other democracies." -- Benazir Bhutto, 1989

She was a complex leader, and it is difficult for me from this distance to disentangle her socialist personality cult side from her sense of herself as part of a dynasty, or her commitment to her vision of her nation and to a strong, democratic, secular Pakistan. Some people say the democracy movement in Pakistan may stand a better chance now that the glare of her charisma cast shadows over everyone else.

I don't know what will happen in Pakistan. If you're looking for that answer, go read the other ten thousands bloggers who will tell you that, even though they don't know either. But her death, and the dramatic weeks that preceded it, remind me of what I admire about the Bush Administration. [I don't think the American domestic political angle is the most important part of the Bhutto tragedy. It just happens to be the one I'm fit to speak about.]

Through most of my youth, no American administration would have sent a Bhutto back to Pakistan when a Musharraf was in control. Some might have fantasized such a world, where American governments once again favored the troublemaking champions of democracy against cozy military dictators.

But after 1950 or so, none would have seriously suggested it as policy. We had a dangerous enemy, and the end of the world, through all of my youth, was never more than 20 minutes away. From what we've learned since the fall of the Soviet Union, our situation was as perilous as the most frightened among us believed it was. The military leadership of the USSR was convinced a nuclear exchange with the West, in which cities would blaze into pyres and hundreds of millions would die, would end in the victory of the Soviets. That their nation would still have enough left to function, and ours would not. Given their preparations for that and our lack of them, probably the marshals in Moscow were right about that.

That world lacked a place for niceties like a Mrs. Bhutto. Many ugly and necessary foreign policies prevailed in America. Many more prevailed that were ugly and ultimately unnecessary, but no one could know at the time which were which.

No president who was alive in my lifetime, from Truman through Reagan, would have sent a Mrs. Bhutto into a nuclear-armed and fundamentally unstable Pakistan to topple a Musharraf in the name of popular sovereignty.

I protested and wrote against many aspects of American policy during the Cold War. I was one who thought much of what we were doing was unnecessarily ugly. I may have been wrong about some of that; but I based my protest not on dislike of America but on reverence for what she ought to be.

Even before the Soviet Union fell apart, the Cold War pressure relaxed. And to his credit, President Reagan, who committed many excesses, began the process of backing away from the necessary evil of dictator-allies. He let Marcos fall when another president, in another time, might have dispatched the CIA to save him.

With Bush, this has become policy, with breathtaking idealism and absolute assurance, after 9/11 pointed out the awful consequences of letting old Cold War battlefields fester and ooze.

Another president in another time would have kept up Saddam's game of footsie. Or would have replaced him with a more predictable generalissimo.

He wouldn't have made trouble for Mubarak over elections and political prisoners.

He wouldn't have withdrawn U.S. troops from a crucial air base during wartime over a massacre of civilians, as the U.S. did in Uzbekistan.

After so many years of enduring detestable compromises during the Cold War, I finally got to see the country I love behave according to what ought to be its principles. And the administration that charged into that policy did it fecklessly, without any sense of the urgency or difficulty of the task, with the wrong people in charge, and with no broad and consistent attempt to rally the nation or its allies for a job more difficult than the Cold War.

What's wrong with Bush is not what's being done in our name. It's that it's being done so poorly that it will make the old short-sighted and cold-blooded cynicism that drove the coups in Guatemala and Iran look like the best foreign policy. It vindicates every Kissingerite shrug at the anonymous torture of some noble soul in a prison of one of our bad bargain anti-communist allies. Old enemies of the American experiment, from right-wing dictators to left-wing academics, are delighted at all the new "proofs" of the limitations of Western-style liberal democracy that tumble out of each new day's newspaper headlines.

The fact that the rest of the world professes to fear us more now, when we back popular democracy in Pakistan, and to urge us to return to ways that will revive the high esteem they had for us then, when we quietly paid to silence democracy activists in Latin America, shows me how much people choose to misunderstand, or forget.

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