My friend Daoud Kuttab sounds the call for liberal intervention with a passion that I share, but have grown to mistrust: “Right now every person who believes in democracy must stand with the lawyers and judges who are risking their lives to fight a dictator.” Righteous words, especially when we see decent Pakistanis being arrested for demanding an end to Musharraf’s lawlessness.
My problem is that I felt the same way about Saddam Hussein in Iraq. In terms of human-rights violations, Musharraf is a saint compared to Saddam. Ever since my first visit to Iraq in 1980, I felt a sense of solidarity with the Iraqis who were being tortured and killed by Saddam’s regime. So when the question arose in 2003 whether it made sense to stand with the Iraqis who hated that regime—and intervene to change it—I thought, to use Daoud’s words, that “every person who believes in democracy must stand with” the oppressed Iraqis who wanted a change.
We’ve all learned a lot in the four years since America rolled into Iraq. One thing I’ve learned is that we sometimes need to temper our idealistic desire to jump in on the side of oppressed people. Often, outsiders simply don’t know enough about the underlying dynamics in these societies to understand the consequences of their actions. Certainly, that was the case in Iraq—a country with much deeper religious and ethnic cleavages than most people (or, to be more precise, than this observer) realized at the time. So I guess I was expressing a version of post-Iraq syndrome when I cautioned this week that “changing Pakistan is a job for Pakistanis, and the more we meddle, the more likely we are to get things wrong.”
So I would say to Daoud: Yes, let’s mobilize lawyers’ groups, and human rights groups, and international agencies to come to the defense of detained Pakistani lawyers and activists. Let’s cut off aid for Musharraf’s regime, if he continues down this road. But if the question is a more direct U.S. intervention to topple Musharraf, I’m against it. Just as I’m against an American move to protect him.
The process of social change is so complex that we can’t understand the effects of our actions. To take the obvious example, if the U.S. and its allies tried to intervene to back the people we think are the “good guys”—those decent lawyers, and the supporters of Benazir Bhutto—we might well contaminate those groups in the eyes of other Pakistanis, and unwittingly foster support for Islamic radicals. I think that’s what Bashir Goth means when he says: “The less the U.S. interferes, the more comfortable Pakistanis will feel about their future.”
People want to make their own history. They don’t want others to make it for them. Surely that’s a lesson of Iran, in 1953 and in 1979. As Ali Ettefagh says, “we are living in an interdependent world,” and people want to make their own choices.
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