Pakistan has been under military dictatorship for the past eight years, but only recently has this seemed to have caught the world's attention. Yes, there has been a superficial veil of "democracy" in place all this time; however, the facts on the ground have changed relatively little with the overt imposition of martial law. After all, the judiciary has never been completely independent, the media has always been under the threat of censorship, and the reaction of most Pakistanis to the suspension of the Constitution was, "We have a Constitution?" Yet, for better or worse, Gen. Musharraf's recent foolhardy behavior has at last brought Pakistan's internal turmoil into the international spotlight.
There has been much discussion about what all this means in the context of Pakistani history. There is, however, a bigger picture that has been neglected. Today is a dark day for Pakistan, but also for the American dream. Founded as a "city upon a hill," America was supposed to serve as a beacon of light for the rest of the world—promoting justice and equity as well as striving to eliminate oppression and better the world as a whole. Instead, as millions of Pakistanis are discovering to their dismay, our government has no problems with propping up violent dictators in third-world countries as long as they serve our interests.
The American media has been content to report the news as "Musharraf declares martial law; ignores U.S. advice"—a highly misleading and deceptive interpretation. It is a shame that this is what passes for news in our world today—a world in which the U.S. can never be seen as anything but a benevolent force. The story isn't that the U.S. cautioned Gen. Musharraf against his actions, but rather that the U.S. has been the only force keeping him in power for the past eight years. It was, after all, President Bush who put American military and financial might firmly behind the general, calling him "a strong defender of freedom" and praising him for "his vision for democracy in Pakistan."
It is ironic that Gen. Musharraf is, in many ways, reminiscent of Mr. Bush in his "vision for democracy." A few months ago, then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales came under pressure for firing government prosecutors for investigating corruption among Republican politicians. Compare that to Gen. Musharraf who sent the military to take over the Supreme Court, ordering the Chief Justice to endorse his "state of emergency" at gunpoint. (To his credit, the Chief Justice refused, and was promptly fired and placed under arrest.) How proud Karl Rove must have been. Similarly, the general was only following his mentor's lead in voiding the Constitution—his mentor who had made a career of flouting our own Constitution and waging war on civil liberties. And when he talked of "judicial activism" as his justification for dismantling the nation's judiciary, the Pakistani dictator could have been quoting word-for-word from the Bush playbook.
Gen. Musharraf's recent actions are not surprising in light of his past behavior; his eight years in power have been a hallmark of vicious dictatorship. Suppressing dissent at any cost, he has been implicated in the torture of dissidents, the assassination of political opponents, and, of late, the bombing of his own people with helicopter gunships (built in the US of A.) Human rights organizations have struggled to bring Pakistan's dismal record to the fore for years but their pleas have fallen on deaf ears.
Many of us were convinced by Mr. Bush's flowery rhetoric about spreading democracy in the Muslim world. Neoconservatives, many of whom have since repented, once hailed the invasion of Iraq as a compassionate effort to liberate the Iraqi people. Only now has that been exposed for the cruel facade it was. For we claim to support freedom in the Middle East, yet continue to prop up brutal puppet regimes that suppress the democratic yearnings of their own people. Americans would be wise to take heed from the current state of affairs in Pakistan and not to dismiss them as inconsequential. Our position has evoked condemnation and mockery throughout the world. But how is it that we've remained blind of our own hypocrisy? Today is a sad day to be an American, indeed.
Mr. Bush, in a speech at the National Endowment for Democracy in 2003, posed a powerful question: "Are the peoples of the Middle East somehow beyond the reach of liberty?" Let us realize from the events of this past weekend that if they are, it is only because we have kept them that way.
The author is a research assistant in cognitive neuroscience in the Department of Psychology.