Bush’s best-laid plans

Viewed from a historian’s perspective, the Bush administration since 9/11 has ransacked the past to conjure up comforting expectations for the future. President Bush excels in this exercise, expressing confidence that the “untamed fire of freedom” will one day soon “reach the darkest corners of our world.” Yet as the assassination of Benazir Bhutto reminds us yet again, events refuse to play along. History remains stubbornly recalcitrant.

Bush would have us believe otherwise. History, he insists, “has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty.” That direction, the president believes, tends toward peace, democracy and freedom for all humankind. America’s purpose, assigned by the Author of Liberty, is to nudge history toward its intended destination. More immediately, America’s ostensible aim since 9/11 has been to make the blessings of liberty available to the Islamic world. As democracy spreads there, the threat posed by terrorism will diminish. Such at least has been the assumption underlying Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, the two wars begun on Bush’s watch.

This strategy of militarized liberation has been fraught with contradictions, not the least of which has been the partnership forged between the United States and Pakistan. Bush has repeatedly declared Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf a valued and trusted ally. Since 9/11, the U.S. has provided Pakistan with at least $10 billion in aid, most of it going to the army. In hopes of ensuring Pakistani cooperation in the global war on terrorism, Washington has ignored that nation’s record as perhaps the world’s most egregious nuclear weapons proliferator.

Yet Musharraf has never shared Bush’s professed commitment to democracy and freedom. A career soldier, Musharraf seized power in 1999 through a military coup. He is an authoritarian dictator who represents the interests of the Pakistani officer corps, distinguished less by any liberal inclinations than by its pronounced Islamist sympathies and a paranoid obsession with India. On Nov. 3, Musharraf declared a state of emergency, a pretext for jailing critics and getting rid of a troublesome Supreme Court. He ended the emergency on Dec. 15. Although Musharraf offers up occasional testimonials on behalf of democracy, they deserve to be taken about as seriously as Bush’s calls for bipartisanship in Washington. It’s cheap window dressing.

Still, as long as Musharraf appeared to be a stabilizing force and supportive of U.S. efforts to create a new Afghanistan, the Bush administration turned a blind eye to his anti-democratic tendencies. Not for the first time in U.S. history, ideals took a back seat to more pragmatic calculations. Washington talked democracy but opted in practice to support a strongman who promised order and cooperation against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, despite the fact that Pakistani assistance against the Islamic radicals operating within Pakistan was never more than spotty.

During the last year, however, the strongman began to appear less strong. Only as Musharraf’s power waned did the United States actively press Pakistan to get onboard the democratic bandwagon. First, the Bush administration promoted a bizarre power-sharing agreement between Musharraf and Bhutto. When that shotgun marriage failed, it insisted on elections as the way to shore up the government’s legitimacy. Now an assassin has demolished these carefully laid plans, possibly thrusting Pakistan into unprecedented turmoil while leaving Bush tied to a partner who increasingly invites comparisons to the shah of Iran.

Faced with the prospect of “losing” Pakistan, what should the world’s sole superpower do? Despite Musharraf’s flaws, should Washington back him to the hilt as the only alternative to chaos? Or should Bush commit the United States without reservation to building a strong democracy in Pakistan?

To pose such questions is to presume that decisions made in Washington will decisively influence the course of events in Islamabad. Yet the lesson to be drawn from the developments of the last several days -- and from U.S. involvement in Pakistan over the course of decades -- suggests just the opposite: The United States has next to no ability to determine Pakistan’s fate.

How the crisis touched off by Bhutto’s assassination will end is impossible to predict, although the outcome is likely to be ugly. Yet this much we can say with confidence: That outcome won’t be decided in the White House. Once again, as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “events are in the saddle, and ride mankind,” with those events reducing the most powerful man in the world to the status of spectator.

At the beginning of his second term, Bush spoke confidently of the United States sponsoring a global democratic revolution “with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” Ever since that hopeful moment, developments across the greater Middle East -- above all, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and on the West Bank -- have exposed the very real limits of U.S. wisdom and power.

Now the virtual impotence of the U.S. in the face of the crisis enveloping Pakistan -- along with its complicity in creating that crisis -- ought to discredit once and for all any notions of America fixing the world’s ills.

Bush dreamed of managing history. It turns out that he cannot even manage Pakistan. Thus does the Author of Liberty mock the pretensions of those who presume to understand his intentions and to interpret his will.

Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University.