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Pervez W. Busharraf

The language Musharraf uses to justify his state of emergency seems lifted from Republican talking points

When Pervez Musharraf took to Pakistan’s freshly unclogged airwaves Saturday night to announce his self-coup, he switched from Urdu to English mid-speech in order to address foreign skeptics. “To the critics and idealists against this action, I would like to say, Please do not expect or demand your level of democracy, which you learned over a number of centuries,” he said. “We are also trying to learn, and we are doing well.”

He's learning something, that's for sure. Musharraf may not ever win any awards for his commitment to political pluralism, but the language his regime has used to justify its crackdown suggests that the general is a keen student of democracy’s rhetoric. After a fashion, at least. Musharraf's state-of-emergency rollout looks to an American audience like a self-conscious linguistic homage to the one democracy advocate who matters to the Pakistani military: George W. Bush. Rather than hewing to the script of the ham-fisted dictator, the speech might as well have come from the Republican National Committee’s speechwriting shop.

Have Musharraf’s minions been rummaging through the trash cans at the Pennsylvania Avenue Starbucks in search of rhetorical inspiration? Consider one particular shared pet peeve: “Judicial activism.” Musharraf, who declared his state of emergency in advance of a Supreme Court decision about whether he could legally win another presidential term, repeatedly lashed out at the courts, using a term freighted with American political history. Was he accusing his country’s judiciary of legislating from the bench on divisive social issues, as our president liked to do back when he was a candidate? Well, no: Musharraf was accusing judges of getting in the way of what he wanted to do. Which also has a sort of familiar ring to it.

Ditto the evocation of the 16th president of the United States. “As an idealist, Abraham Lincoln had one consuming passion during that time of supreme crisis, and this was to preserve the Union,” Musharraf said. “Towards that end, he broke laws, he violated the Constitution, he usurped arbitrary power, he trampled individual liberties.” Nineteenth-century American political history may be a distant subject in Pakistan, but Musharraf knows enough to inform his countrymen that even Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during a grave national crisis. Did he pick up this tidbit in a history course back at the Pakistan Military Academy, or might it perhaps have been gleaned from one of the countless American righty bloviators who have invoked the Great Emancipator to defend some more recent war on terror excess? We report, you decide.

The general also borrowed a plea from the Bushies: “Give us time.” In so doing, Musharraf appeared quite familiar with his erstwhile American patron’s strategy for defending his efforts in Iraq. In setting this week’s backwards step on democracy against the multiple centuries of evolution in countries like the United States, he tried to make the emergency look like a much smaller deal--nothing to get worked up over--than it did to, say, the hundreds of protesters who have been arrested by cops in Lahore. Bush’s Baghdad team of General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker adopted almost identical language when they testified before Congress in September.

Musharraf this week also hasn’t been afraid to hide behind the flag. “Whatever I do is for Pakistan, and whatever anyone else thinks comes after Pakistan,” he declared. So: Critics are fuzzy-headed idealists, lawyers are hampering the country’s ability to exercise its might, and only the president is above politics. A classic of embattled leaders everywhere, and surely one Americans have grown used to lately as well.

Finally, there’s the ultimate justification for Musharraf’s crackdown: terrorism. “There is visible ascendancy in the activities of extremists and incidents of terrorist attacks,” his emergency order declared. “Some members of the judiciary are working at cross purposes with the executive and legislature in the fight against terrorism and extremism, thereby weakening the Government and the nation’s resolve and diluting the efficacy of its actions to control this menace,” it added. After eight years in power, the general has learned to use the terrorism card not only to wring billions in aid out of Washington, but also to wrest bureaucratic real estate from his own people. It’d be nice to mock it all as the sort of transparent subterfuge that only goes down in backwards mustachioed countries. Alas, it seems awfully familiar right here at home.

Given the language of Musharraf’s declaration, the general might be forgiven for being a bit crestfallen at the cool public reception that greeted his move in Washington. Of course, that might have to do with some of the visuals the crackdown has generated. Those same security forces that are supposed to be fighting Islamist terrorism were busily hauling off human-rights activists, beardless Punjabi attorneys, and other members of the country’s secular elite. Meanwhile, a rebellious radical cleric appeared to have taken over another village in the mountainous Swat region.

The juxtaposition highlights another, perhaps less intentional, similarity between the general and his American patron: ineptitude. Just as Bush evokes a terrorist threat while doing things like shifting resources away from Afghanistan or packing FEMA with political cronies, so has Musharraf played Washington like a sitar by talking up the need to reform madrassas and bring law and order to the tribal areas while actually spending much of his $7 billion in U.S. assistance on weapons best used in a conventional war with India.

The jig may well be up for Musharraf, with or without a crackdown. Before his announcement, the general's popularity at home was estimated at 21 percent--below even Bush’s domestic approval rating. The state of emergency likely won’t help. But at least he’s flailing about while using the strident language of good against evil, order against disorder, and curses on all the lawyers. Yes, indeed, he has learned, and he is doing well.

Michael Currie Schaffer is working on a book about the pet industry.

By Michael Currie Schaffer