Musharraf, the Shah and Total Paralysis in Washington
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg
With the entire mess going on in Pakistan I can’t help but get a sense that the American reaction to what is going on there today is very similar to what we did with Iran in 1979.
In the 1970s the U.S. armed Iran to the teeth, and counted on it to keep the peace in the Persian Gulf, guarantee shipping lanes for oil and balance the Soviets in the region. All of our eggs were in that basket and when the Shah started to teeter Washington went into full policy paralysis. Some in the Carter Administration, most notably Zbig Brzezinski, argued that the consequences of the Shah’s fall were so detrimental to American interests that we had to buck him up and encourage him to take firm steps to quell the rebellion. Meanwhile, the State Department argued for engaging the Iranian opposition so that we would be well positioned if the Shah fell. Carter did neither. Supporting a crackdown was too morally reprehensible, but talking to the opposition was seen as giving up on the Shah and making him look even weaker. In the end, the U.S. did nothing: slowly watching the situation deteriorate; giving the Shah its official support; doing little to actually keep him in power; and doing even less to prepare for the possibility that his government would collapse. Worst of both worlds.
The situation today in Pakistan is eerily similar. The Administration is completely dependent on the Musharraf government to contain extremism in Pakistan and act as a central ally in the “war on terror.” If the government were to fall you could see massive instability in a nuclear armed state and the possible rise of an Islamist government. Nobody wants to advocate for a violent crackdown, which may not even be possible and would certainly be awful, but nobody has any idea what to do if the Musharraf government were to fall.
As a result the current policy consensus seems to be “don’t rock the boat and hope for the best.” So for example, Barack Obama makes a very rational statement that if the opportunity presents itself we should carefully take out senior Al Qaeda operatives in the tribal areas of Northwest Pakistan
if the opportunity presents itself. Hillary Clinton and Chris Dodd respond that somehow his statements are destabilizing the Pakistani government. Their reaction is just another indicator of the total paralysis on this issue. Outside of not rocking a boat that might be about to capsize anyway, does anyone have any idea what we are supposed to do?
Side note: I’d also point out that what people forget about the Iranian revolution is that it wasn’t originally just Khomeini and the Islamists. It was a broad coalition that included leftists, liberal democrats, student activists, religious moderates and radicals who all came together to overthrow the government. It took roughly a year from the time that protests began to the actual abdication of the Shah and another year before it became fully apparent that the government would be dominated by radical clerics, who weren’t necessarily the most popular but were the best organized and most able to step into the breach. Similarly today we see a fractured society and tenuous dictatorship in Pakistan where pro democracy and Islamist forces are putting pressure on Musharraf whose hold on power is slowly weakening.