In Pakistan, Echoes of Iran
JERUSALEM -- As we struggle to make sense of the current political crisis in Pakistan, it's useful to think back nearly 30 years to the wave of protests that toppled the shah of Iran and culminated in the Islamic Republic -- a revolutionary earthquake whose tremors are still shaking the Middle East.One of the legacies of the Bush administration will be there was never a plan B. We have seen it in Iraq and now we see it in Pakistan. Can we look back 30 years to look at what we could have done differently in Iran to get an idea of what we should do or have done in Pakistan?
The shah was America's friend, just like Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. He was our staunch ally against the bogeyman of that time, the Soviet Union, just as Musharraf has been America's partner in fighting al-Qaeda. The shah ignored America's admonitions to clean up his undemocratic regime, just as Musharraf has. And as the shah's troubles deepened, the United States hoped that moderate opposition leaders would keep the country safe from Muslim zealots, just as we are now hoping in Pakistan.
And yet the Iranian explosion came -- a firestorm of rage that immolated any attempt at moderation or compromise. A similar process of upheaval has begun in Pakistan -- with one terrifying difference: Pakistan has nuclear weapons.
The Iran analogy was made forcefully two weeks ago by Gary Sick, a Columbia professor who helped oversee Iran policy for the Carter administration during the time of the revolution. "There was no Plan B," Sick wrote in an online posting. He sees the same dynamic at work in Pakistan. "We have bet the farm on one man -- in this case Pervez Musharraf -- and we have no fall-back position, no alternative strategy in the event that does not work."
So ask yourself: What Iran policy would have made sense, in hindsight, given the ruinous consequences of the Iranian revolution? Should the United States have encouraged the shah to crack down harder against protesters and ride out the storm, as some hard-liners urged at the time? Or should it have moved more quickly to encourage a change of regime, after it became obvious the shah couldn't or wouldn't reform?There is probably nothing that can be done now.
Even now, almost 30 years later, it's hard to know what we should have done. And perhaps that's the point.
The abiding truth, about Iran then and Pakistan now, is that outsiders don't understand the forces at work in these societies well enough to try to manipulate events. The disaster of Iran happened partly because of American meddling -- in installing the shah in the first place and then enabling his autocratic rule. Pakistan, too, has suffered over the years from too much U.S. intervention.Pakistan is on the edge of chaos in large part because of US involvement and more will simply make it worse. It appears the Bush administration is going to do nothing - for once they may be doing the right thing. But I hope they know where the nukes are. A nuclear Pakistan is scary enough, a nuclear Taliban/al-Qaeda is a nightmare.
Pakistanis are in the streets this week protesting Musharraf's gross assault on democracy. I hope they succeed in creating a Pakistan that is more free and democratic. I pray that the reformers can work with the Pakistani military to suppress al-Qaeda and Taliban movements that would destroy any semblance of democracy in that country.
But changing Pakistan is a job for Pakistanis, and history suggests that the more we meddle, the more likely we are to get things wrong.