November Issue 2003
Moving the Goalpost
President General Pervez Musharraf believes he is driven by destiny. This is perhaps why after having experienced firsthand the thrill of total power at home, and the constant limelight of the international media, he is now staking claims to becoming a leader of the Muslim world. The ambition is still inchoate; its expression subdued. But those close to him see unmistakable signs of the birth of a desire to be a bigger player, a global leader.
They say that his idiom and ideas have both become grandiose. That he sees himself in a different league, a league of frontline leaders of the world. And this, they say, is a new addition to his oft-repeated belief that he is the best salesperson Pakistan has.
The OIC summit in Malaysia gave President Musharraf another opportunity to hold forth on his grand vision. In his speech he unfurled a view that was transnational, big on the theme of the Muslim Ummah being in dire need of rescue and rehabilitation. At the end of the conference he was self-congratulatory, proudly claiming that the OIC’s acceptance of Pakistan’s proposal for restructuring the organisation was a diplomatic gain for the country.
Preceding the OIC performance was General Musharraf’s theory that the road to the Islamic world’s salvation lies in “moderate enlightenment” — a suggestion that the Muslim world needs to pursue the path of moderation and enlightenment to come out of its present impasse.
In recent times, General Musharraf has spoken openly against militancy, sectarianism, benighted mullaism, and other ailments of misapplied faith. Mix this with his generally secular take on life and the result is fairly interesting: a powerful military leader, propounding a moderate vision for a world of Islam locked in a multiple crisis of confidence and future direction.
Recent developments on the international front may also be stoking General Musharraf’s ambition to speak from a pedestal higher than that of a national leader. The Islamic world’s traditional pillars of leadership have all but collapsed. The House of Saud is shaking like the proverbial house of cards. As the momentum builds in the US — the Saudis’ diplomatic life-support — against the status quo in the Middle East and in favour of democracy, the rulers of Mecca and Madina are too consumed by the battle for survival to think of the challenges confronting the Muslim Ummah.
Elsewhere, the picture is just as grim. Saddam Hussein is no more, Syria and Libya are on a weak wicket and Iran totally taken up by the growing international pressure on its nuclear programme.
The parts of the Islamic world that have traditionally been the source of leadership are in a tailspin. There are no leaders to be found.
Mahatir Muhammad of Malaysia is controversial, radical and, in any case, phasing himself out of his present role. Hosni Mubarak of Egypt has been tainted with the Israel deal and Turkey is too Eurocentric. If General Musharraf looks around in his near and distant diplomatic neighbourhood, he does not see too many towering personalities. There are none. None, at any rate who represent a significant militarily potent Muslim country, with exceptional geographical location, and at the same time acceptable to the west (read the US).
But General Musharraf’s path (or ambition) to reach the pinnacle of the Islamic world’s leadership is strewn with treacherous faultlines. And these start from home. He is not a leader who is ruling Pakistan by consensus. His power still flows from the barrel of the military’s guns and the political chessboard he is playing on is tricky. The issue of the legitimacy of his rule has not gone away; nor has the power of the opposition weakened in any significant measure, even though the pro-Musharraf government has completed a jejune, ineffectual year in power.
Musharraf cannot be a credible leader at the international level if the domestic ground he stands on is built of sand. Abroad, too, he is not a universal hero. There are lobbies at work, constantly reminding the international community of his Kargil misadventure, and his initially vibrant defence of the concept of jihad — anathema to the neo-cons of the world.
But their praise is always qualified. There are always reservations: “He is, after all, a military ruler.” Even worse, “does he have full control of his own institution” and “can he make good on his promises?”
Then his friends are not the blindly trusting type either. They acknowledge his many goods deeds: timely help (U-turn is the word Musharraf’s critics use) in the war against the Taliban; the fight against al-Qaeda and capture of some of its top leaders; seemingly firm action against militant organisations at home; slow, sometimes painfully slow, but steady show of flexibility towards India and positive engagement with Hamid Karzai’s Northern Alliance-infested regime in Kabul.
Then there are new demands that are expected to be met every time these are made. These days, the most pressing one is to contribute 10,000 troops to Iraq. Diplomats in Islamabad say that the whole idea behind getting a new United Nations Security Council resolution on Iraq was to get some support on the ground. After the financial commitments made at the Madrid meeting of donors, the next issue is that of assembling an international force. Pakistan, say diplomats, will again be confronted with a renewed US demand to deliver. They also say that there will be strains and consequences, if it does not — many of these might be for Musharraf, personally. After all, they say, Musharraf is a US-friendly general ruling Pakistan, and he is not much of a friend if he does not support Washington when support is needed the most.
General Musharraf does not like being called US-friendly. It hurts his pride and belittles the international image and presence that he is carefully cultivating. But the reality is harsh and it cuts through ambition like a knife through butter. The lead role that General Musharraf has on the global stage is not because he is destiny’s child born to glory; it is because of the tactical adjustments that he has made so far. This makes him a good tactician, but not a strategic visionary — the quality that enables leaders to have a real and lasting impact on the world stage.
The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV hosting a prime time current affairs program.