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S U B C O N T I N E N T A L   D R I F T
Should He Go?
The message to despots everywhere if Clinton visits Pakistan
By APARISIM GHOSH

January 6, 2000
Web posted at 5 a.m. Hong Kong time, 4 p.m. EDT


This spring, U.S. President Bill Clinton is expected to make his first visit to the subcontinent. It will be his first trip there--and one of his last anywhere as President. Naturally, then, the White House is keen for it to be a generally happy affair. But Clinton faces a quandary: to go or not to go?

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The question arises because the country is ruled by a military dictator, General Pervez Musharraf--and American presidents are, rightly, loath to doing business with rulers in uniform. The Musharraf regime desperately wants Clinton to visit. It has issued some veiled warnings: if Clinton ignores Islamabad and travels to New Delhi, he will strengthen the anti-American Islamic groups in Pakistan. In an interview with TIME in late November, Musharraf said: "Sidelining Pakistan would be counterproductive. The people of Pakistan would be terribly disappointed, and his absence would give leverage to the extremists here. I would really be disappointed."

The dictator's case is pretty thin. The use of "extremists" as bogeymen is plainly disingenuous. The Islamic fundamentalists Musharraf speaks of loathe America and everything it stands for. They are unlikely to be mollified by a presidential visit; if anything, Clinton's arrival would only heighten their paranoia about Washington's influence in South Asia.

But Musharraf isn't really thinking about his domestic audience when he argues for Islamabad to be included in the presidential itinerary. He wants a Clinton visit for the legitimacy it would confer on his regime in the community of nations. After all, if the leader of the free world were to break bread with the general then surely the rest of the globe--particularly those pesky British and their moralistic Commonwealth--must acknowledge him as Pakistan's rightful ruler. Washington gave Musharraf its tacit approval by failing to condemn his Oct. 12 coup; it was not one of Clinton's finer moments. Now, the dictator wants blessings bestowed in public.

But that is precisely why Clinton should not go: the president of a democracy cannot--should not--legitimize a dictatorship. That would not only send the wrong message to aspiring despots everywhere, it would also hobble any hopes of a return to democracy in Pakistan. No doubt Clinton will steer clear of his own accord if it emerges that Islamabad, as Delhi claims, has links to the Indian Airlines hijackers.

Would, as Musharraf says, the Pakistani people be disappointed if Clinton was to bypass Islamabad? That's far from certain. For one thing, an unelected leader cannot claim to speak for his people. For another, there have been plenty of demonstrations of anti-American sentiment among ordinary Pakistanis: remember the protests at the U.S. bombing of Osama bin Laden's Afghanistan hideouts? Would Musharraf be disappointed? Undoubtedly--and that's a very good reason for Clinton NOT to go.

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