History will probably show George W. Bush to have been a bold president, ready to gamble his legacy at a moment’s notice. Some risk-taking has paid off for him and other rolls of the dice haven’t.
Even in instances where Bush’s chutzpah got results, the policy goals obtained were disastrous for the country. For example, 9/11 allowed him to scare the Congress and the American people into doing almost anything he wanted–ballooning federal spending more than any president since Lyndon B. Johnson, assuming imperial presidential power, trashing civil liberties, and involving the United States in the Iraq and Afghanistan quagmires. Even before 9/11, however, Bush, despite winning the presidency without getting the most votes, brashly governed by pursuing a “big agenda”–for example, federalizing education.
Yet one gamble that has clearly backfired, with many counterproductive results, is Bush’s slathering of money and political support on Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf. The more the United States, unpopular in Pakistan, has hugged Musharraf, the more endangered the autocrat has become. Under popular pressure, Musharraf first had to give up his powerful position as head of the Pakistani armed forces and become a mere civilian president. Bush then, to use a gambling term, “doubled down” on his bet by continuing to back Musharraf unequivocally.
Now, in the recent election, Musharraf’s party was roundly thrashed by opposition parties, which now have a majority in the Pakistani parliament. Yet unbelievably, the same Bush, who spouts soaring rhetoric about spreading democracy around the world, looked into the soul of another dictator–just as he did with Vladimir Putin of Russia–and still remained loyal to him. Even in the wake of the election debacle, the Bush administration “tripled down” and went out of its way to praise the all- but-sunk Musharraf. The administration seemed to hope that the newly elected Pakistani opposition would take pity on the dictator by entering a power-sharing arrangement with him. That was a low probability outcome. Predictably, opposition leaders Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif–having been either exiled or jailed by Musharraf and riding a popular wave among the Pakistani people against the strongman–would have none of that and together formed a coalition to oppose him.
The worry among administration officials was always that opposition leaders would be less enthusiastic about stamping out radical Islamic factions and al Qaeda in Pakistan’s wild and rugged Northwest. Yet, pocketing billions in U.S. aid, Musharraf only half-heartedly did so himself. In fact, after the invasion and occupation of both Iraq and neighboring Afghanistan, U.S. support of the authoritarian Pakistani leader has only inflamed and enlarged such groups. One of al Qaeda’s principal gripes with the United States is its support for corrupt, autocratic governments in the Islamic world.
Therefore, the U.S. government is creating a demand for its own services. Uncle Sam is inflaming the threat from radical Islamists, only to rush in and apply more military power and aid to combat it, in turn further exacerbating the danger. And the downward cycle keeps repeating itself.
To break the cycle, the United States government should take advantage of the Pakistani elections and withdraw all support and aid from the Pakistani government. Furthermore, the United States needs to focus on al Qaeda and worry less about other radical Islamist groups in Pakistan. The election results show that these non-al Qaeda groups are on the fringe and most likely will not take over a nuclear-armed Pakistan–especially if the United States quits acting as a recruiting poster for them by supporting the corrupt Pakistani government. Thus, these groups do not directly threaten America and are Pakistan’s problem.
Instead, the United States needs to up the bounty on the leadership of al Qaeda–from the $50 million price on Osama bin Laden’s head and $25 million on his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri’s. Even doubling or tripling this figure would be much cheaper than the billions of U.S. aid shoveled to the Pakistan government, which has proved not only futile, but counterproductive.
This plan is probably not macho enough for a bellicose U.S. president who is surrounded by hawkish advisors; but it is far better than current U.S. policy toward Pakistan, which has failed to capture or kill bin Laden or Zawahiri in almost six-and-a-half years and has inflamed local Islamists there. Even if Bush is unwilling to go this far, he should at least use common sense and end support for the isolated and vastly weakened Musharraf.