US Friends and Foes Grabbing Power

WASHINGTON -- While President Bush has been distracted with his unpopular war against Iraq, friends and foes are busy grabbing power to perpetuate themselves in office.

Among them are Gen. Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan; Russian President Vladimir Putin; Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and President Mikhail Saakashvili of Georgia.

There is little the United States can do about the drift toward authoritarian rule.

For Bush, the toughest problem is the Pakistani leader whom he has called a "friend." The two men have established a close relationship and the U.S. president is not about to lower the boom on the Pakistani leader who has received a bundle of U.S. aid since 2001.

Despite Bush's personal entreaties and a visit from Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, Musharraf has refused to reverse his decisions to suspend Pakistan's constitution and impose emergency rule, which is de facto martial law.

Musharraf's purged court has defended his decisions and opened the way for him to serve another 5-year term -- this time as a civilian president. The ruling is expected to hasten his decision to relinquish his post as commander of the armed forces.

Musharraf took power in a coup d'etat in 1999, deposing elected prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

Meantime, opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister of Pakistan -- who was ousted from power twice on accusations of staggering corruption -- has called on Musharraf to resign.

U.S. officials also are concerned about the safety of Pakistan's nuclear weapons.

Despite his efforts, the whole Pakistan episode is taking a toll on Bush's reliance on personal diplomacy. Remember when Bush met with Putin, looked into his eyes and said he had a "sense of his soul"? Putin's former career in the KGB secret police seems to have escaped Bush in the State Department's Cliff notes.

Under Russian law, Putin must step down as president next year -- but he obviously finds such an option to be very painful. The Russian president says he will run in the December parliamentary elections and hints that he could come back as a future prime minister.

Putin has been backsliding on democratic reforms, taking control of the television networks and the oil industry. He has been criticized by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for crushing reforms.

Another leader trying to stay on top -- his critics say he wants to be president forever -- is Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Chavez is stridently anti-American, a posture sure to generate support in some precincts -- but opposition to his autocratic rule is growing in Venezuela and abroad.

Chavez wants to change the Venezuelan constitution so that he could be elected indefinitely and expand his control over the economy. He has already nationalized the oil, telecommunications and electricity industries.

Another close ally -- U.S. educated President Mikhail Saakashvili of Georgia -- has invoked an emergency decree after a police crackdown in Tbilisi on an opposition demonstration. The protesters claimed that the president intended to extend the mandate of the current Parliament.

Saakashvilli has ignored U.S. appeals to immediately revoke the state of emergency in his country, located in the Caucasus. An important fuel pipeline runs in the region from the Caspian basin through Georgia and Turkey to serve world markets.

Saakshvilli has called for a presidential election on Jan. 5 to test support for his government.

Sometime ago, Bush mused it was easier to be a dictator. He's right about that.

Bush -- with pressure from his neo-conservative vice president and staff -- has himself expanded presidential power in the name of the "war on terror."

The power grab-bag of this administration extends from its warrantless wire tapping to the president's outrageous abuse of "signing statements" that he issues when putting his signature on new legislation; the statements are his claims that he won't be bound by certain sections of the bill he just signed into law.

His decision to name as attorney general retired federal judge Michael Mukasey -- who believes the president is above the law in wartime -- is good insurance for Bush's power surge.

Unfortunately, Bush's actions show that America is not in a prime position to preach to friends and foes about abuse of power.

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