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Victor Davis Hanson on what to do about Pakistan

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HH: I begin on that subject with Victor Davis Hanson. Professor Hanson, of course, extraordinary authority on military history and foreign affairs, now at the Hoover Institute, his personal blogsite,, I’ve linked it at Professor Hanson, always a pleasure, welcome.

VDH: Thank you for having me, Hugh.

HH: This is important, because if Pakistan goes the way of Iran and Musharraf the way of the Shah, that gives radicals 24-48 nukes. Is that what you see happening?

VDH: Or more. I think some people have suggested that Pakistan may have 70-80 nukes. And I don’t know how many he has, but it has enough to deter India, which is…and India probably has 200-300. So I think, as I described it, I can’t think of a worse situation, because it’s a perfect storm. Here we have an autocratic dictator with his finger in the dike, saying that if he pulls it out, we’re going to get radical Islam, not a constitutional government. And yet, Americans are dying next door in Afghanistan, and not far away in Iraq for constitutional government. He’s got the Bomb, we’ve got…the architects of 9/11 are in Waziristan. He either can’t or won’t do anything about it. The Pakistanis, it’s very bizarre, they expect nearly $2 billion dollars in military credits and direct financial assistance, and yet they don’t ever express any aid or satisfaction with that largesse. It’s only when we threaten to cut it do they become irate, as if it’s some type of perpetual entitlement. So there’s no good choices here. It’s sort of like the same situation in Iran. I know that the Democrats have said that we took our eye off Afghanistan, and the real problems in Pakistan. But note that other than Barack Obama’s sort of misguided flippant that we were going to go invade Pakistan if need be, nobody has a solution for it.

HH: Victor Hanson, I recall, though, in 1978 we had an authoritarian ruler in Iran, he was not perfect by a long shot, his SAVAK was a terrible human rights violator. But at the same time, he wasn’t Khomeini, and he didn’t make war on us, and in fact, helped us in our alliances around the world. Pakistan ain’t perfect, but what do you think the odds are of replacing him with someone better?

VDH: I don’t know, but the problem is, you see, Hugh, is that when we were…we talked a lot about democracy, but we weren’t waging a war for its implementation in two states right next to it. So then what are we going to say? We’re going to say well, you know, Iraq won’t work out, let’s get strong man, let’s get a strong man in Afghanistan like we do in Pakistan. That’s one problem. And then the other problem is it’s…I know that things could be worse, but it’s not as if Musharraf’s been that great for us. He’s really ceded a couple of northern provinces over to the Taliban. He either can’t or won’t galvanize the popular support if it’s even there to go in there. So you know, here we are, six years after 9/11, and we know where bin Laden and Zawahiri roughly are, but we haven’t got anything for the $15 or $20 billion dollars we’ve invested, much in Pakistan, other than, and this is what we’ve gotten, isn’t it, that things could be a lot worse, you guys, if I go.

HH: No, we got Ramzi Youssef, who was…

VDH: Yeah, but we got Ramzi Youssef. That’s true. We did. And we killed a couple of people with Predators inside Pakistan. But we haven’t got a lot of traction as far…and see, the problem is we don’t know to what degree there’s any popular support for us to get anybody, because as you saw that latest Pew poll, I think it was conducted in May, the two countries with the highest anti-American sentiment were Turkey and Pakistan. So if we were to get a constitutional government under Bhutto or whoever would be elected, I’m not sure there would be much difference, except that they could argue that it’s legitimate. What we kind of get the worst…it reminds me of the Greek colonels in the 70’s. They kept saying to us if you don’t back us, you’re going to get communist and Marxist. And yet, they played us every way possible with aid, and then they would tell their own people, you better support us, because we’re the only guys who can get American aid. And Musharraf talks out of both sides of his mouth.

HH: But the Greek colonels turned out pretty well, didn’t they, Victor?

VDH: I don’t think so.

HH: Well, we got a democracy there that’s still a member of NATO. It’s not…

VDH: I know, but that was after…democracy came by deliberately overthrowing the colonels. And then we experienced twenty years of just…and it was nihilistic anti-Americanism, as someone who lived in that country for three years. I don’t think that we installed…that’s another issue, but we did not install the Greek colonels that everybody was convinced that we did, and they were corrupt, and we suffered because didn’t distance ourselves from it.

HH: It’s clear we didn’t. That’s in the Legacy Of Ashes book. But put to the choice between the Greek colonels and Khomeini, obviously the Jeanne Kirkpatrick authoritarian/totalitarian distinctions…

VDH: She is right about that, absolutely. But I’m just suggesting that this guy is starting to unwind, and what we are trying to do is walk a tightrope. I think that what we said is there were going to be elections in January, the first of the year, and the Pakistani Supreme Court apparently had ruled that you couldn’t be a man in uniform and hold…sort of like the Joint Chiefs and the presidency. We had this formula that he had agreed to, and to allow Benazir Bhutto back, there would be an election…there’s still a constitution of some sort there. And now, he’s reneged on the deal. He says he’s reneged on the deal because it won’t last until January, there will be an Islamic takeover. Benazir Bhutto and there are other people who believe they’re going to be the beneficiaries of elections say that’s not true. That’s the last, desperate effort of a dictator to hold onto power. And we don’t really know what’s going on here. All we know is that we give this country $2 billion dollars, they don’t seem to like us, they’ve got bin Laden et al in their country, they’ve got nukes, and there’s no good options.

HH: Well, I thought you would oppose to my analogies the Philippines analogy, where we forced Marcos out, and though it was unstable, we still have an ally there.

VDH: We did, but you see, that was because, you made the key point, we sent Paul Wolfowitz over there, and he told Marcos to leave. And there was a big argument in the Reagan administration whether that was wise or not. And that’s why today, we have salvageable relationships, I think, with the Philippines, and because we didn’t stick with Marcos when he had no popular support. And I’m afraid if we stick with this guy, he’s going to lose anyway, and we’re going to go down with him. And I think what we want to do is support the Supreme Court, support the parliament, support Bhutto, support anybody we can, and get it transitioned so that we don’t end up with the opposite. And I think it was terrible what Carter did with the Shah, but you could see, given the corruption of the Shah, and the increased expectations of that Western elite, that we could have been prodding the Shah a little bit more incrementally, because if you don’t do anything, then the whole thing blows up in your face, and you lose both ways. You get an anti-American government, and you get an anti-American populace. If you start to prod the person and say look, you can start to make some reforms before…you’re on top of a tiger. Don’t get off. But it’s going to buck you off anyway unless you start to do something.

HH: Victor Hanson, that reminds me of ’78. Let me play for you the President in the Oval Office today talking about Pakistan with Turkey’s Prime Minister. Here’s the key clip:

GWB: He understands the dangers posed by radical extremists. After all, they tried to kill him three or four times. And our hope is that they will restore democracy as quickly as possible.

HH: That is, that’s the key thing, that it seems the tightrope you referred to. He says look, they’re trying to kill him, they tried to kill Bhutto last week, and I think the President’s leaning towards Musharraf. And you, I think I hear you saying bad idea.

VDH: I don’t think so. I think that what he’s trying to say is he’s saying to Musharraf, it’s not as bad as you think. And if it is as bad as you think, you did the wrong choice. We’re going to back you, but you’ve got to get back in there, and you’ve got to get these elections, because you don’t have any legitimacy, and we can’t back an illegitimate government when we’re preaching and dying and spending half a billion dollars, or half a trillion in Afghanistan and Iraq. So what you’ve got to do, go back there and get this constitutional process back on track, and get these elections in January. And I think that’s all we can do.

HH: But doesn’t it, my last try at this…

VDH: (laughing)

HH: Shapoor Bakhtiar is who’s in the back of my mind.

VDH: Yes, Bani Sadr as well.

HH: And that’s…the Benazir Bhutto of their day. And against these killers, these democrats seem to me to, on the one hand, you’ve got the Khomeinists on the one side of them, you’ve got the Takfiris on the other side of them. Why not go Egypt here, and just say okay, it’s going to be authoritarian for the next thirty years?

VDH: Because I think we’ve got kind of a model. I’m not saying we want to repeat all the blood and treasure in Afghanistan and Iraq, but what we tried to do under nearly impossible situations is say to people in the Middle East, we’re not going to fall into that trap of two things, giving you a one vote, one time, a plebiscite like Hamas. That was a disaster. But we’re going to do the messy work of supporting a constitutional, more encompassing process that gives you an opportunity, a choice between radical Islam and a dictator. And we’ve tried to do that in Iraq, and I think it’s starting to work, and I think we did it in Afghanistan. Karzai’s not a Musharraf, because he’s at least constitutional and legitimate.

HH: Have you written this up yet, Professor?

VDH: Go ahead?

HH: Have you written up your opinion of this yet?

VDH: Just a little bit in National Review, just that…I wouldn’t take it upon myself to say that I have an answer, but here is one situation where I think the State Department and the administration are trying to craft something that is viable. And notice that there hasn’t been a lot of opposition to them from the Democrats.

HH: Not yet, not yet. Give them time. Victor Davis Hanson, I appreciate it.

End of interview.


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