Shahid Buttar is a lawyer in Washington DC and former teaching assistant of security studies in South Asia at Stanford University.
The War on Terror, according to the Bush Administration, is the most pressing issue facing our nation. Yet time and time again, the president takes misguided steps, while failing to pursue initiatives that would help restore America's strength and standing in the world. Over the last several weeks, his continued support for the military dictatorship in Pakistan has offered stark examples of both sorts of errors.
The distinguishing characteristic of U.S. foreign policy over the past two generations has been its astounding and consistent incompetence. In the 1940s, we became the first—and so far, only—nation to deploy weapons of nuclear mass destruction against civilians, killing over a quarter of a million Japanese citizens over the course of four days. The invasion of Vietnam 30 years later cemented an emerging international vision of America as a belligerent bully. Today, our foreign policy continues to sacrifice not only principles such as democracy and human rights—from which we once derived the "soft power" identified by Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye as the primary source of American influence in the world—but also our geo-strategic position as seen through the lens of realpolitik .
During the 1980s, a series of ironic errors sowed the seeds for our current international conflicts. First, seeking a strategic counterweight to the encroaching Soviet presence in Afghanistan, President Reagan funded and trained the Afghan mujahideen who later emerged as the Taliban—and whose members included Osama bin Laden. Seeking a counterweight to the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran, Reagan then funded and supplied a secular dictator in a neighboring country who, at the time, seemed friendly: Saddam Hussein of Iraq.
Since then, American Presidents have pursued various machinations in West Asia, including support for both sides in a brutal eight-year war between Iraq and Iran that claimed over a million lives; crippling sanctions that pummeled Iraqi civilians over the course of a decade; and a war of aggression and fumbled reconstruction in Iraq. The net result of these incoherent strategies has been the rise of not American, but Iranian influence in the Middle East. Meanwhile, the U.S. has failed to take serious measures addressing the Israel-Palestine conflict despite its central role in fueling regional tension. Right-wing Republicans and AIPAC Democrats continue, like lemmings, to march America off the side of a geo-strategic cliff.
It gets worse: despite having reiterated a rhetorical commitment to the American ideals of democracy and freedom, the Bush Administration has steadfastly refused to support those values in practice. Since the 9-11 attacks, the President has consistently praised and supported Pervez Musharraf, a military general who engineered a brief war with India in the late 1990s and flirted with nuclear escalation before seizing control of Pakistan in a 1999 coup. Since then, General Musharraf has survived several attempts on his life, while maintaining U.S. support by claiming to move against Muslim extremism in Pakistani religious schools and along the western frontier with Afghanistan. However, bin Laden remains at large, and terrorist attacks in neighboring India—allegedly with Pakistani sponsorship—have continued.
Most recently, citing unspecified corruption charges, Musharraf in early March sacked the chief justice of Pakistan's Supreme Court, who had supported concerns about a series of individuals mysteriously “disappeared” by Musharraf’s government. The judge was widely perceived as an obstacle to the general's aspiration to extend his dictatorship through the next electoral cycle. A resulting constitutional crisis has prompted the nation's lawyers to take to the streets in protest. This recent movement for democracy in Pakistan has been supported by American human rights advocates, including the President of the Asian-American Network Against the Abuse of Human Rights, who alleged retaliatory violence by state authorities during a demonstration last week.
If democracy is an appealing principle, we should act like it. Rather than support military dictators in client states whose regimes abuse American human rights activists, U.S. Presidents could instead support their secular opposition. Even if this Administration is unwilling to actively defend human rights abroad, it should at least withdraw support from regimes that actively undermine them. Taking either step would enhance American "soft power" by demonstrating our commitment to democracy, while also preventing a potential travesty of world-historical proportions: continued military control during a period of mounting instability in a nuclear-armed client state, and the possibility of weapons of mass destruction—which Bush never found in Iraq—falling into the hands of terrorists in Pakistan.