Shadow Government

A Pakistani election primer

In Pakistan's 66-year history, a civilian government has never completed a full term of office and then handed power through elections to a successor administration. That will change on Saturday when Pakistanis go to the polls to elect a new parliament. Given Pakistan's position as ground zero for violent Islamic extremism, the world has a vital stake in who wins these elections and how they proceed to govern. What should we expect?

Several pre-election trends will have a decisive influence on its outcome. On the positive side of the ledger, this will be a competitive race. Forty-seven parties are contesting it. Forty-eight percent of registered voters are under age 35, and there are 36 million new voters, bringing to bear a sizable youth constituency that has a compelling interest in job creation and economic reform. There are 161 female candidates for office, compared with only 64 in Pakistan's last national elections in 2008. The Pakistani military, which has traditionally played a kingmaker role in politics when not governing itself, does not have a horse in this race, preferring to remain on the sidelines. These are all positive dynamics.

The top downside risk is the extraordinary levels of targeted violence that have preceded voting day, tilting the playing field and dousing it in blood. More than 100 political candidates and their supporters have been murdered by the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) over the past 1.5 months. Insidiously, the TTP seems not to want to disrupt the election overall, but is pursuing a targeted campaign to suppress turnout for the parties most determined to combat violent extremism: the Awami National Party, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, and the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP).

Pakistan's election is in fact taking place amid a low-grade civil war in which domestic terrorists are successfully targeting the political parties with the most liberal vision for the country's future. These parties are effectively unable to campaign, with the result that turnout of their supporters will be dramatically suppressed.

Equally disturbing is that several political parties expected to do best in Saturday's contest appear to have made a separate peace with the Pakistani Taliban that has largely precluded terrorist attacks on their members. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party, led by Nawaz Sharif, and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, led by Imran Khan, have been able to campaign free from violent attack, giving them extra momentum in the lead-up to the polling. Sharif has offered to negotiate with the Pakistani Taliban and withdraw the Pakistani armed forces from the fight against the militants in the country's northwest. Khan has offered dialogue with the terrorists and has pledged to order the military to shoot down American drones operating over extremist safe havens.

The PML-N and PTI lead the polls, with parties under siege from terrorism trailing in their wake. Should Sharif or Khan form a government separately or in coalition, Americans should expect a change in Pakistan's cooperation against violent extremists -- if either leader can wrest control of foreign policy and security policy from the armed forces, something the PPP-led government of the past five years could not manage.

In fact, the surge in popular support for the PML-N and the PTI comes not from their flirtations with radical Islamists or their anti-American posture. It stems from the promise of both parties to reverse the tide of corruption, cronyism, and economic lethargy that has characterized Pakistan under PPP rule. Polls show the vast majority of Pakistanis do not support the Talibanization of their country -- which is why the TTP is violently contesting the election rather than competing in it, and why Islamist political parties like the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam and the Jamaat-e-Islami have done so poorly in previous elections and will surprise on the downside in these elections.

Most Pakistanis want better governance and economic opportunity -- not new safe havens for terrorists or war against the United States. But the more space the country's new leaders give to the violent radicals who seek to overthrow the Pakistani state, the less chance those leaders will have of generating the public goods their voters demand. A successful civilian transition is a historic first worth celebrating as better than the alternatives. But by playing footsie with the terrorists who are tearing their country apart, the likely victors of Saturday's election do a disservice to the vibrant civil society and patriotic armed forces that hold Pakistan together against increasingly long odds. 

Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

Did Hillary Clinton have it right back in 2008?

All presidents make serious mistakes. Presidential leadership comes not from avoiding mistakes, but from having the humility, wisdom, and courage to correct those mistakes. There are growing signs that President Obama and his senior team are now realizing that they have seriously mishandled the Arab Awakening, even if they are still unsure what to do now -- and even if their negligence has rendered their choices now much more difficult.

Two and a half years in, Obama still has not developed a coherent strategy for the region. The problems began further back, in 2009, when Obama's dogmatic commitment to outreach to the Iranian regime clouded his ability to see the significant shift taking place among the Iranian people as the Green Movement suddenly emerged. The White House's subsequent passivity towards the Green Movement protests deprived the United States of leverage at the most meaningful moment of Ayatollah Khamenei's political vulnerability in recent years. Obama's Egypt policy has consisted of embracing the Muslim Brotherhood and neglecting non-Islamist Egyptians like liberals and Coptic Christians -- all while President Morsy drives the Egyptian economy over the cliff, though he still finds time to support fatwas against Easter. Obama may have won the war in Libya but is scandalizing the peace, as the Benghazi consulate attack and the chaos in Mali reveal.   

Obama's Syria policy has consisted of just wishing it would go away. The humanitarian costs of over 80,000 dead are a grim rebuke to the White House's Atrocities Prevention Board. Instead, Anne Marie Slaughter and Walter Russell Mead have now taken to calling Syria "Obama's Rwanda," as was suggested here a few months ago. 

For those not moved by principle to take action on Syria, American interests alone make it compelling. The region is being further destabilized with Iraq and Lebanon facing internal turmoil, and American allies Turkey and Israel feeling increasingly threatened -- the latter so much so that it has undertaken its own bombing campaign in Syria. Iran continues to rely on Syria as one of its main sources of leverage and influence in the region, just as Hezbollah relies on patronage from both Iran and Syria. Potentially worst of all, Syria's chemical weapons stores -- among the world's largest and deadliest -- are in very real danger of falling into the hands of extremist groups. That is what happens when the Assad regime opens its weapons depots and begins mixing and using them, thus dispersing the stocks, loosening command and control, and giving the extremists even more incentive to try to seize them -- and giving potential Syrian military defectors a deadly bargaining chip. Assad seems to be pursuing a salami slicing strategy of gradually employing more and more gruesome tactics. In this way he is perversely acclimating the outside world to his barbarity, while testing American resolve. Yet instead of meaningful action, we get a quote like this from a senior Obama advisor to the New York Times:  "If he drops sarin on his own people, what's that got to do with us?"

Yes, he really said that. Aside from the moral callousness of that statement, its myopia is stunning. The possible use of sarin also means that that the stocks have been loosened, dispersed, and much more likely to fall into other hands. One would think that the very real prospect of chemical weapons being acquired by Islamist extremists who hate America would convince those few remaining voices still insisting that the U.S. has no national interests in the Syrian civil war to reconsider their blind faith. 

Meanwhile, Obama's hands-off approach for the past two years has deprived the United States of any opportunity to 1) build ties with the opposition and shape its composition, 2) prevent the preponderance of the opposition from getting radicalized, 3) tip the scales of the conflict in the opposition's favor, and 4) shape the post-conflict political order, whatever it might be and whenever it might begin to emerge. Walter Mead sums this up well:

Given those goals, White House Syria policy from the beginning should have been to do everything possible (short of major direct American military involvement) to ensure a quick rebel win. The quicker the win, the less time international jihadis would have had to hijack the Syrian revolution, the less funding would have gone to radical groups, and the better the chances that post-war Syria would have been relatively calm. That's all lost now and we have paid and will pay a high price for the hesitation and dithering since war began.

Meanwhile, the strategic mistakes mount, with the most recent being Obama's rhetorical "red line" on the use of chemical weapons turning out to be only that -- rhetorical. Credibility is one of a president's, and a nation's, most precious assets. The "red line" is only the latest in a series of credibility-squandering utterances, following on Obama's repeated demands that Assad "must go," backed up by nothing policy-wise. The mismatch between Obama's words and actions is creating a credibility gap of Carter-esque proportions. Dictators from Tehran to Pyongyang are taking note.

One of the more memorable moments in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary came when then-Senator Hillary Clinton challenged also then-Senator Barack Obama over his allegedly jejune foreign policy credentials with the "3 a.m. phone call" advertisement about an urgent global crisis. Her question was pointed: Would the callow Obama know how to respond in the crucible?

Looking back over the five years since, I wonder if Clinton was right in her main point, just wrong in her timing. In this case, perhaps the mistake is not that the phone rang just once at 3:00 a.m. and  that President Obama botched the call. Is it possible that historians will one day decide that the phone was ringing incessantly for two years, and yet President Obama failed to answer it?

Scott Olson/Getty Images