By DANIEL SNEIDER
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
President Bush and his administration have no problem puffing up their chests to slam dictatorships in Syria, Iran and North Korea. But when it comes to the military regime in Pakistan, whose leader enjoys the president's hospitality at Camp David, the message is a bit different.
Pakistan, supposedly our stalwart "ally" in the war against Islamist extremism, heard some polite words a couple of weeks ago from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about maybe getting around to elections in a few years. The real payoff came March 25 with the news that the Bush administration would deliver a long-blocked sale of F-16 fighter jets to Islamabad, part of a five-year, $3 billion arms-assistance package.
The jets "are vital to Pakistan's security as President (Pervez) Musharraf prosecutes the war on terror," an administration official said.
That is a fairy tale for children. The aircraft have nothing to do with chasing Al-Qaida terrorists who operate in Pakistan-Afghanistan border regions. They were ordered more than 15 years ago to give Pakistan the ability to attack India, including with nuclear bombs.
The arms deal is yet another wink and a nod to Musharraf to ignore ritual noise about democracy. Never mind that the search for Osama bin Laden seems endless or that Pakistani nuclear scientists were delivering the means to make the bomb to Libya, Iran and North Korea.
This kind of realism has long been a feature of American foreign policy. During the Cold War, the United States often supported authoritarian regimes in the name of fighting communism. I have no problem with the need to make such trade-offs sometimes. But the president has set a very different standard.
"Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe," he proclaimed in a signal speech in November 2003, "because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty."
In Pakistan, however, that is exactly what the administration is doing. U.S. officials repeatedly argue that Musharraf's moderate military rule is preferable to Islamists coming to power in a nuclear-armed state.
Rice tried to conceal this reality with excuses. She embraced "democratic reform in Pakistan" leading to "free and fair elections in 2007." And she praised the government's drive reform education and root out Islamist extremism.
Unfortunately, neither claim withstands much scrutiny.
Musharraf, the general who overthrew an elected government in 1999, has refused to restore constitutional rule. In December he broke a promise to step down as army chief of staff -- a dual role that makes it clear the military runs the show.
Musharraf has suppressed established secular political parties in favor of Islamist political groups. Last fall, his government arrested opposition leader Javed Hashmi after he publicized a letter written by an army officer criticizing Musharraf. Hashmi is serving a 23 year sentence.
Educational reform is also a charade. Pakistan's collapsed public education system, which is responsible for one of the lowest literacy rates in the world, drives students into the madrassas, religious schools many of which are tied to extremist groups.
The Pakistani government announced a major program to improve the public schools and promote a curriculum that is secular and tolerant. But it has not backed that plan with money -- only 11 countries in the world spend less of their GDP on education. And while the United States gives billions in arms aid, it is offering only $67 million to aid this effort this year.
"Despite President Musharraf's repeated pledges to crack down on the more extremist madrassas in his country, there is no evidence that he has done so," a Congressional Research Service report concluded in December. His reluctance "is rooted in his desire to remain on good terms with Pakistan's Islamist political parties," the report said.
Religious groups control the curriculum in public schools and the promotion of intolerance there has reached "dangerous proportions," concluded a lengthy recent report from the International Crisis Group.
It is easy to talk about democracy. But as Pakistan proves, this administration is no stranger to double talk.
X Daniel Sneider is foreign affairs columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.