Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Noah Feldman on U.S. Policy in Pakistan

The question comes up again and again when I talk to friends and colleagues about U.S. foreign policy. The question is most urgent when discussing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but equally valid when the topic is the Indo-U.S. Nuclear deal, or even what is happening right now in Myanmar.

The question is this: is the U.S. acting in ways that are true to the credo of supporting and spreading democracy around the world, or does it merely do this when it is clearly in its own interests? Is present-day U.S. foreign policy governed by a "realist" philosophy (do what you have to do) or an "idealist" one (spread democracy)?

Noah Feldman has a think piece on this in a recent New York Times Magazine, where he gives special attention to the situation in Pakistan. To begin with, this is how Feldman frames the question:

As ideal and slogan, though, the creed of exporting democracy differs from the creed of expanding empire in one important respect: When we fail to follow it, we look hypocritical. An empire that extends itself selectively is just being prudent about its own limitations. A republic that supports democratization selectively is another matter. President Bush’s recent speech to the United Nations, in which he assailed seven repressive regimes, was worthy of applause — but it also opened the door to the fair criticism that he was silent about the dozens of places where the United States colludes with dictators of varying degrees of nastiness. (link)

The obvious examples of "realist" collusion are Saudi Arabia and Egypt, where the U.S. hasn't pressured for democratization, since in these cases more "democracy" might mean more anti-American Islamists. Regarding Burma/Myanmar, President Bush recently took a strong stance of condemnation, but in Feldman's view this may not be especially convincing:

The problem is that our support for dictators in some countries tends to undermine our ability to encourage democracy elsewhere, because it sends the message that we may change our tune the moment an immediate interest alters our calculations. The monks of Yangon have put their lives on the line; if our embrace of their cause is conditional on, say, our not needing any favors from the ruling junta this week, why should they trust us? Double standards are not merely hypocritical, but something much worse in international affairs: ineffective. (link)

In Feldman's analysis, the U.S. support for Pervez Musharraf is a little trickier.

Feldman actually sees the recent presidential election in Pakistan, and Musharraf's pledge to resign as Chief of Staff of the Army, as signs that democracy is working:

Under these circumstances, the best option is to pursue a chastened version of the democratization doctrine — one that makes no exceptions for friends while also recognizing that building durable institutions may do more good than holding snap elections. In Pakistan, the Supreme Court, buoyed by the national association of lawyers, pressured Musharraf into promising to resign his powerful position as army chief of staff and demilitarize the presidency. That kind of bravery deserves our support — especially because it reminds us that strong and functioning institutions are the preconditions to successful democracy; without them, elections may actually make things worse. (link)

Feldman doesn't get very specific about the various ways Musharraf has suppressed the voices of his political opponents in recent weeks, and doesn't mention the fact that the opposition parties in last week's presidential elections abstained their votes (admittedly, the fact that they merely abstained, rather than walk out, was a kind of victory of Musharraf).

Rather, the focus is on the institutions -- and Feldman does seem to have a point that the Supreme Court has emerged as one viable counterweight to Musharraf's executive authority. Institutions like a free media (which Pakistan has), an independent legislature (which it doesn't have, at present), courts, and political parties are in some ways as important as elections when thinking about what makes a real, sustainable democracy. (Fareed Zakaria makes much the same point in his book, The Future of Freedom)

Still, I'm not sure I can agree with Feldman's characterization of Musharraf's actions as "brave" -- nor do I think that the ongoing U.S. support for Musharraf's government is a good thing. A great deal will depend on whether Musharraf's resignation from the Army is real or just a sybmolic show (as I put it in an earlier post, a mere "change of clothes"), and also on what happens if and when a newly constituted Pakistani Parliament acts in ways that Musharraf doesn't like.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home