You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Musharraf for Brains

How to make friends and lose influence, theGeorge W. Bush way.

By November of last year, Pakistan, a nation hardly known for its stability, seemed primed to explode. After months of street protests against General Pervez Musharraf’s increasingly authoritarian rule, the Pakistani dictator had declared de facto martial law, allowing him to arrest thousands of political activists and sparking even greater unrest. Many young Pakistanis turned to extremist organizations, and suicide bombings spread from the Afghan border into once-serene cities like Islamabad and Lahore. While paying lip service to fighting these Islamic militants, Musharraf actually abetted the radicals, inking a peace accord with Islamic militants to shore up his power.

Yet, facing a potential implosion in a nuclear-armed nation rife with jihadists, the White House remained unperturbed. In the midst of the general’s crackdown, Bush called Musharraf a "loyal ally" and, improbably, "truly ... somebody who believes in democracy." Behind the scenes, the administration maneuvered to keep Musharraf in power, urging former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, recently returned to Pakistan from years of exile, to sign a power- sharing agreement that would have left Musharraf in charge of the country’s security forces. Long after the United States would have abandoned most foreign leaders who abused their populations at great risk to American security, Bush not only stuck with Musharraf, but increased his support for him.

To some White House insiders, however, Bush’s stubborn fealty toward Pakistan was no surprise. Over the past seven years, many foreign policy analysts have explained the Bush administration’s controversial decisions as a function of ideology (namely neoconservatism) or the predilections of specific policymakers (such as Paul Wolfowitz or Donald Rumsfeld). But, in truth, one of the chief drivers of Bush’s foreign policy has been the president’s own tendency to personalize diplomacy. All good presidents develop relationships with their counterparts, but the former frat boy in Bush likes to quickly size up a foreign leader and then set policy based on his unreliable first impression. Unfortunately, this "great man" diplomacy has caused one policy disaster after the next. Bush’s White House often puts so much trust in an ally that it ignores a leader’s weakness or even perfidy, as with Iraq’s Nouri Al Maliki or Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Nowhere has this proclivity been more problematic than in Pakistan.

AFTER THE SEPTEMBER 11, 2001, attacks, Musharraf knew that, despite Pakistan’s past support for the Taliban, he had to court American favor by backing the global war on terrorism. To that end, the general set about befriending Bush. As The Washington Post reported, in some dozen private meetings, Musharraf charmed Bush with stories of his childhood in Pakistan. In conversations, the general cannily emphasized his regular-guy, straight-talker credentials—playing to the way Bush perceives himself—by talking about his affection for the Pakistani rank-and-file, though in reality Musharraf (like Bush) comes from an elite background, with a father who served as Pakistan’s director of foreign affairs. It didn’t hurt that Musharraf (like Bush) carries himself with an easy swagger, radiating confidence. Almost from the beginning, the two men hit it off. "I think [the president] took an instant liking to Musharraf," former deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage told the Post.

In public, Bush called the general "my buddy" and, on many occasions, "a friend." At a joint White House press conference in 2002, Bush praised Musharraf’s "vision of a Pakistan as a progressive, modern, and democratic Islamic society," although there was no evidence Musharraf had such a vision. In 2003, Musharraf even earned one of the highest marks of American respect, a visit to Camp David followed by a reciprocal Bush trip to Pakistan. Musharraf later celebrated his newfound popularity in America with the modern-day version of a victory tour, appearing on "The Daily Show" in 2006 to banter with Jon Stewart about his self-aggrandizing new autobiography, which became a New York Times bestseller.

Bush’s warmth was not simply rhetorical. His Pakistan policy seemed to be governed by a different set of rules than those he applied to other nations. For example, beginning in 2002, the Bush White House became increasingly restrictive in disbursing foreign aid, favoring well-governed states over corrupt ones. It actually halted new aid to Egypt, a close ally, after Cairo jailed one of its most prominent human rights activists. But, as Pakistani governance deteriorated, the administration refused to make similar demands of Islamabad. Rather, after September 11, Washington opened a gushing pipeline of aid to the country—at least $10 billion between 2001 and 2007that was not conditioned on Islamabad’s success in fighting terrorism, combating radicalism, or building democracy. The Bush administration did not even object as Islamabad wasted the money equipping its military to fight in the event of war with India.

Other elements of America’s Pakistan strategy diverged from standard administration policy, as well. Often, the White House has punished allies who have not supported the war on terrorism. When the Philippines, for example, pulled its small contingent of troops out of Iraq, the administration blasted the decision, saying that the withdrawal "send[s] the wrong signal to terrorists," and subsequently cut aid to Manila. Yet, when Musharraf deviated from the counterterrorism script, few in Washington called him on it. In 2002 and 2003, Musharraf forged an alliance with Pakistan’s most prominent Islamist party, whose support helped the general pass amendments that gave him sweeping powers, including the right to dismiss parliament. Partly as a result, Islamist parties won control of the local government in the Northwest Frontier Province, the first time in Pakistani history a radical party had triumphed at the polls. Then, in 2006, Musharraf signed a cease-fire with militant tribal leaders along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, effectively protecting them from the Pakistani army. By 2007, this haven had allowed Al Qaeda to regroup, returning to its greatest strength since September 11. "Al Qaeda and the Taliban have to a troubling degree been able to re-create [along the border] the environment that existed in Afghanistan under the Taliban," one American intelligence officer said last year. And, last summer, the White House’s own top counterterrorism adviser admitted that Pakistan’s antiterrorism strategy had failed. As a result, radical violence in Pakistan has actually mushroomed over the previous two years.

The problem was that Bush "didn’t ask the hard questions [of Musharraf], and frankly, neither did the people working for him," Husain Haqqani, a leading expert on Pakistan at Boston University, told The New York Times. "They bought the p.r. image of Musharraf as the reasonable general. Bush bought the line— hook, line, and sinker." Kamran Bokhari, an analyst for the intelligence firm Stratfor, agreed, telling the Times, "Musharraf thinks that Bush has certain weaknesses that can be manipulated." (Musharraf, unlike Bush, seems to realize the difference between personal and political relationships, telling The Wall Street Journal, "I don’t think relationships between nations are tied to individuals.") Even many administration officials now admit as much. "We’ve been ignoring those who are rejecting Musharraf," Xenia Dormandy, who ran the National Security Council’s South Asia desk in 2004 and 2005, said after she left the government. And, when I’ve spoken with administration officials who would like to take a tougher line on Pakistan, they inevitably say it is impossible, given Bush’s attachment to the general.

Indeed, when challenged about the general’s resolve in fighting Islamic extremism, Bush refuses to budge. After Musharraf signed his deal with the tribal leaders, he told a joint U.S.-Pakistan press conference, "This treaty is not to deal with the Taliban. It is actually to fight the Taliban," even though the tribal leaders retained enormous sympathy for the Sunni extremists. Bush added: "I believe him," before telling Musharraf "Good job" as they exited the briefing. At times, Bush’s praise was embarrassingly naive: "When [Musharraf] looks me in the eye and says ... there won’t be a Taliban and won’t be Al Qaeda, I believe him, you know?" he declared. And this message of unwavering support filtered down into the administration, to the point where State Department diplomats and their counterparts in other agencies became hesitant to criticize Pakistan. As several officials told me, the White House simply killed any attempts by the foreign policy bureaucracy to develop a broader Pakistan strategy. Rather, Bush officials offered only token criticism of Musharraf’s deals with extremists and his political crackdown. The White House even took a soft line toward A.Q. Khan, the scientist who sold Pakistan’s nuclear know-how to North Korea and Libya, demanding no independent investigation into his proliferation even as Pakistan refused to allow American intelligence agents to question him. (Khan was quickly pardoned of any crimes and lives comfortably under house arrest.)

Lovestruck by Musharraf, Bush failed to anticipate the rising tide of public protest that Pakistani lawyers led in 2007—the White House seemed to genuinely believe the general was popular with average Pakistanis. (He wasn’t: One poll taken in late 2007 showed most Pakistanis wanted Musharraf to leave office.) Bush also failed to see how his support for a widely loathed general would undermine U.S. counterterrorism efforts. After all, without real public support, Musharraf could not convince his public that battling terrorism and radicalism was a Pakistani priority, not just a U.S. demand.

The love-in also prevented the White House from building links to the Pakistani people, via media outlets, lawyers’ groups, public schools, student leaders, as well as new political forces like Imran Khan, a magnetic cricketer turned politician. Wendy Chamberlin, U.S. ambassador to Pakistan in 2001 and 2002, told the Journal, "I advised to give more aid to the police and to education" to create a broader link to the country. "But this didn’t happen." With no effective public outreach, America’s image suffered horrendously. Some Pew polls have shown that less than one-fourth of Pakistanis have a positive opinion of the United States. This winter, with Musharraf clinging to power, the White House attempted to bring the popular Bhutto and the general together, until Bhutto’s death left Washington scrambling desperately. But most Pakistanis had already lost faith in Bush. As one Pakistani opposition leader told Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress, "Why does President Bush say, ’Mr. Musharraf is my friend’? Why doesn’t he say, ’Pakistan is our friend’?"  

OF COURSE, Musharraf is not the only foreign leader to blind Bush with friendship. In 2001, Bush famously looked into the soul of Russian President Putin and declared the secretive former KGB man "very straightforward and trustworthy." Since then, Putin has destroyed virtually all political opposition in Russia, while overseeing the growth of a pseudo-fascist pro- Kremlin youth group, Nashi, weaned on anti-American vitriol. Still, for seven years, the White House has looked the other way. Just last summer, Bush hosted Putin at his family estate in Kennebunkport. The two men acted like old chums, trading quips at a joint press conference and going speed-boating together. Bush also warmed to Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki, reportedly huddling with him to talk about "their shared level of faith in a God." So, even as the Bush administration’s own internal reports questioned Maliki’s ability to lead and Iraq descended toward civil war, Bush insisted last summer that "Prime Minister Maliki’s a good guy, a good man with a difficult job and I support him." In 2007, Bush also seemed distracted by his affinity for Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and his wife, a born-again Christian. During a visit by Museveni to Washington, Human Rights Watch and other activists pushed Bush to highlight human rights abuses in Uganda, site of a long-running civil war that has claimed thousands of lives. But Bush made no mention of it, merely lavishing praise on the Ugandan leader.

In some ways this tendency is the converse of Bush’s well-documented insistence on demonizing enemies like Kim Jong Il, Hugo Chavez, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—an insistence that has also done far more harm than good, often strengthening rather than isolating U.S. enemies. But Bush is not one to learn from his mistakes. After seven years of failed policies and the trouncing of Musharraf’s party in recent Pakistani elections, the White House still supports the general. Last month, administration officials told the Times they would like Pakistan’s opposition leaders to work out a power-sharing arrangement with Musharraf. Others inside the administration simply want to shift America’s ties to former prime minister Nawaz Sharif or Bhutto’s widower and political heir, Asif Zardari. But Zardari is known as "Mr. Ten Percent" for his alleged graft, while Sharif, in office, also faced widespread corruption charges. Worse, simply switching to a different personal relationship will do nothing to build links to average Pakistanis, or help boost the United States’ image in Pakistan. And, as long as Washington remains so unpopular, neither Zardari nor Sharif will dare crack down on militants, for fear of appearing like a U.S. toady. In fact, only days after the parliamentary elections, Zardari announced he would launch another dialogue with Islamic militants, an idea popular with the Pakistani public. Call it the not-so-great man approach to diplomacy.

This article appeared in the March 26, 2008 issue of the magazine.