The Pakistani Dilemma

The United States should carefully consider the potential replacements for Presidents Vladimir Putin and Pervez Musharraf before it decides to press for change in Russia and Pakistan.

I was asked to give a talk today at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty at their Prague headquarters on the theme, "U.S. Realism and Russian Democracy." In outlining my theses, I first made reference to the "democracy paradox", a concept many readers are already familiar with.

I realize now that as I was unveiling my second point, which I entitled "The Pakistani Dilemma", word of Osama bin Laden's declaration of war against Pakistan's president Pervez Musharraf was beginning to circle around the globe, giving this particular section of my talk its piquancy.

In the context of Russia-and drawing on the example of Pakistan, the "Pakistani Dilemma" faced by Washington is the realization that even when there is profound dissatisfaction with the cooperation one has received on issues of prime importance to the United States (combined with concerns about the erosion of democratic freedoms), the United States is loath to risk bringing about political change not only for fears of destabilization (and it is hard to see how U.S. interests would be served by weak governments in either state) but that what might emerge in place of the toppled or weakened regime will either be unable or unwilling to cooperate with America's concerns.

There are many valid criticisms of the governments of Vladimir Putin and Pervez Musharraf, both for what they have done domestically as well as their external policies. Both have been "imperfect partners" from the U.S. perspective, where one can point to a gap between cooperation received and what could still be offered. But those who have said American interests (and not just values) would be better served by increasing pressure on Russia or Pakistan need to be able to produce more than just hope as a basis for assuming things would get better. The first goal for policy must not be "we are trying to make things better" but rather "we are working to ensure things don't get worse."

We can't put all of our eggs into one basket in Pakistan, that is very true, and one of the key lessons learned from post-Soviet Russia is not to favor personalities over process. Having said that, however, we also need to ask whether another Pakistani leader would do the same things Musharraf has done in terms of trying to contain Al-Qaeda in Pakistan (and perhaps here we should be realistically, as one Indian official told me, and to work toward a realistically goal of prophylactic containment rather than assuming eradication is feasible in the short run); moreover, would another Pakistani leader be in the same position to try and maintain dialogue with India, even if there have been no dramatic breakthroughs as of yet?

Today's warning is a reminder about not needlessly upsetting the apple cart.

For more commentary on international relations, see The Washington Realist, Nick Gvosdev's blog.