President Bush on Monday urged Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani president, to hold elections and give up his army post “as soon as possible,” but gave no indication that the general’s imposition of emergency rule would bring about any significant change in American policy.
The comments were the first by Bush since Musharraf’s move over the weekend ignited a constitutional crisis. Bush would not comment about what the United States might do if the Pakistani leader ignored the pleas, saying only, “I hope he takes my advice.”
Bush also praised Musharraf as a “strong fighter against extremists and radicals.”
Over the past year, senior lawmakers in Congress have sometimes warned that aid to Pakistan could be in jeopardy if Musharraf did not act aggressively against Islamic militants, and White House officials have sometimes used those threats in private meetings to press the Pakistani leader.
But there was no sign on Monday that Democratic leaders in Congress would try to push Bush to cut aid to Pakistan now. Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a member of the Armed Services Committee who has publicly criticized Pakistan over its efforts to counter terrorism, said it was important to maintain a “constructive dialogue” with Pakistan and that dialogue could be lost if Congress were to reduce the flow of money to Islamabad.
A Bush administration official who works on Pakistan issues acknowledged that with the United States’ having already invested so much in Musharraf, there was little Washington could do in response to the Pakistani president’s actions that did not have the potential to undermine American goals.
“When you owe the bank a million dollars, you have a problem; but when you owe the bank $100 million, the bank has a problem,” he said. The official, like some others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the subject publicly.
Democratic presidential candidates have seized on the weekend’s events to criticize the close ties the White House has nurtured with Musharraf since the Sept. 11 attacks. Aid has included more than $10 billion in assistance, most of it to the military, to help root out Qaida and Taliban operatives in the country’s mountainous tribal areas.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., called the Bush administration’s approach to Pakistan “fundamentally incoherent.” Yet neither Clinton nor any of her fellow candidates offered details about how they would chart a different course than the one that the White House has followed for the past six years.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in an interview Monday that it was likely that Musharraf decided he could defy the United States in part because “we convinced him we had a buddy here that no administration was going to walk away from.”
Biden said Musharraf should proceed with elections in January, set up an independent commission to ensure that the elections are fair and reach a political deal with Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister who the United States hopes can negotiate a power sharing arrangement with the general. “If that didn’t work out, I’d get on the right side of history. I’d cut off support,” he said.