Bush Stands by His Dictator

"The war on terror" made me do it. That's the excuse that works for George W. Bush to rationalize his assaults on the rule of law, from arbitrary arrest to torture. So why not try some war-on-terror obfuscation to bail out his president-dictator buddy over in Pakistan?

That's the card Bush played at his Saturday press conference when he once again celebrated Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf as a strong ally in the war on terrorism: "If you're the chief operating officer of al-Qaida, you haven't had a good experience. There has been four or five No. 3s that have been brought to justice one way or the other, and many of those folks thought they had found safe haven in Pakistan. And that would not have happened without President Musharraf honoring his word."

Of course Bush's statement was utter nonsense. Al-Qaida has been having a very good experience with its CEO Osama bin Laden-whom Bush had promised to get "dead or alive"-being still very much alive and apparently moving with his minions quite easily across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. So too his Taliban sponsors, who seem to get stronger each month; Afghanistan is no closer to stability than Iraq, that other war-on-terrorism battleground where Bush once claimed triumph.

But now, even Pakistan is a war zone in which the terrorists seem to be thriving, and that is more troubling than the chaos in that other country we invaded to seize its imaginary nuclear bombs. Pakistan has real ones, upward of 80, as well as the aircraft and missiles to deliver them if some of the religious extremists in the military ever get in charge. Some highly placed folks in the Pakistan military supplied the transport planes used by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of the "Islamic bomb," to transfer key nuclear weapons technology out of Pakistan and into North Korea, Libya and Iran. If Musharraf is such a determined warrior against terrorism, why has he pardoned Khan, the man who did so much to help those rogue nations that Bush warned us against, while preventing U.S. intelligence agents from interviewing him?

Not to let Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto off the hook, because Khan's network flowered under her tenure as prime minister, as well-not that Bush holds that against her either. Heck, U.S. presidents have tolerated Pakistan's nuclear madness ever since President Jimmy Carter, and then Ronald Reagan, enlisted Pakistan to back the U.S-recruited Islamic fanatics, such as bin Laden, in their revolt against the Soviet puppet leader in Afghanistan. Reagan didn't even care when the CIA warned him that Khan was kick-starting the Iranian nuclear weapons program that Bush now says may lead to World War III.

But Bush's coddling of Musharraf goes further; he dropped the sanctions imposed against Pakistan as punishment for its nuclear program and then rewarded the Pakistani president with $10 billion in military aid to fight terrorists. But what has fighting terrorists got to do with arresting your country's lawyers and judges? Nothing, but here, too, the Bush people have an excuse: Musharraf is not a bad man-he's just made a few mistakes.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, on a day last week when thousands of peaceful opponents of the dictatorship were being rounded up, called Musharraf a "reasonable man." Boy, can she pick 'em. As for the mass arrests: "We think this was a bad decision. Full stop. A bad decision." But bad decisions, like destroying the last vestiges of democracy in Pakistan, do not a bad dictator make, according to the Bush contingent. As Rice said: "I don't have any doubt that he is somebody who tries to have the best interests of his country at heart."

In response to calls from Rice and Bush, Musharraf did say something about holding elections as soon as he gets a new supreme court appointed that will back his claim to be president. Bush wrote the book on that one.

The opposition parties, whose members are being jailed by the thousands, said they wouldn't participate in elections under martial law, but Bush called Musharraf's vague promises of elections "positive steps" and said, "I take a person at his word until otherwise."

Bush is no dummy, and he knows that if you want to act like a dictator, you'd better not look like one, so "get rid of the uniform" is another bit of advice he offered the general-dictator-president of Pakistan. He could have added, "and smile more." The best way to sell repression is with a smile or, if you can't manage that, a smirk, as Bush well knows.

Robert Scheer is editor of Truthdig.com and a regular columnist for The San Francisco Chronicle.

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