Searching for a Pakistan Strategy

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(l. to r. ) : Press Information Department / AP; Aude Guerrucci / Getty

A little over a year ago President George W. Bush leaned across his podium at a White House press conference and told Pervez Musharraf he was "a strong defender of freedom and the people of Pakistan." Now he's sending the Pakistani President quite a different message. Last week, four days after Musharraf declared martial law, Bush called him and said, "you ought to have elections soon, and you need to take off your uniform. You can't be the President and the head of the military at the same time." This Friday he is dispatching his Deputy Secretary of State, John Negroponte, to tell Musharraf in person that he needs to do both those things and to restore civilian rule.

The unraveling in Pakistan is testing Bush's diplomatic abilities, and it's not just because the crisis is requiring him to confront a leader with whom he has had close ties since 9/11. More importantly, Bush is working without a clear strategy: even at this late date the White House still doesn't have a plan for protecting American interests in Pakistan without Musharraf. In essence Bush and the White House are winging it, trying to back Musharraf down from the current crisis while coming up with a longer-term approach to securing U.S. interests in the region.

That is a messy process involving multiple meetings between Bush and his top advisors and numerous discussions between staffers at State, the White House, the Pentagon and the CIA. So far, Negroponte's first goal on the mission this weekend is to try and salvage the prospect of power sharing between Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto. But aides are quietly acknowledging that the U.S. needs to think beyond both those flawed figures.

The problem is deciding what such a world looks like. Three different Administration officials involved in the interagency deliberations over Pakistan this week told me there is not yet a clear approach for handling the crisis beyond the immediate diplomacy of Negroponte's visit. "I don't want to say the interagency has concluded anything at this point," said one senior White House official. "It's a very fluid situation."

The goal at least is clear, even if the Administration doesn't know how to get there. Says one official involved in the interagency discussions: "At the end of the day, how do we get maximum cooperation with the Pakistani government in light of the fact that the most recent National Intelligence Estimate says al-Qaeda is trying to reestablish its headquarters in the tribal areas?"

Bush's aides say the President is flexible and willing to entertain a variety of possible routes forward. "It's going to take some time to figure out where this ends up," says press secretary Dana Perino. She says the White House is resisting, "a black-and-white answer to what is a very gray situation."

Some in Washington are looking to the military, and in particular Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani, the deputy chief of the army staff, as a reassuring figure. "On the asset side of the ledger," says one State department official, "We've got a really good relationship with Kiyani. People know him. He has long-term political ambitions and he's patient enough to keep them in the long term."

But there is dispute in the Administration, and in Congress, over whether the U.S. should repeat the personality-based approach that has produced such problems with Musharraf. Senator Joe Biden is pushing for a massive increase in non-military aid and a conditioning of military aid to progress on democracy. Some are pushing that approach in the interagency discussions, but others see the military as the safest bet for the future. Until that debate is sorted out, Bush and his diplomatic team will have to buy time with makeshift diplomacy of the sort unfolding now in Washington.