Pulling a Putin

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili may be preparing to steal a play from his archrival's playbook in order to keep his grip on power.

More than two years after their violent short war, Russia and Georgia have forged a cold peace. But it's a bitter, fragile one: Russia exerts ever stronger influence over Abkhazia, the larger of Georgia's two breakaway provinces, and has effectively swallowed South Ossetia. Tbilisi considers Russia an occupier of its territory and deeply resents what it sees as Moscow's bullying policies in its near neighborhood and authoritarianism at home.

Which makes it all the more ironic that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, a sworn enemy of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, appears to be seriously thinking about emulating the political sleight of hand performed by his antagonist in Moscow. Under this scenario, Saakashvili would force through changes to Georgia's Constitution, paving the way for him to swap the presidency for a greatly empowered premiership and hence remain in charge in Tbilisi once his second and final term expires in 2013.

At the heart of the speculation is Saakashvili's constitutional reform process, which began in the spring of 2009. In what he claimed was an effort to bridge the antagonism between the ruling and opposition parties that has deepened since the authorities' violent crackdown on anti-government demonstrators in November 2007, the president proposed a multiparty constitutional commission. Its task was to draft changes to the constitutional amendments that Saakashvili had pushed through in 2004, which concentrated power in the presidency. But most figures in the opposition opted against participating, seeing the process as an attempt by Saakashvili to create an illusion of consensus when none existed.

The opposition's decision to cede the political field to Saakashvili, together with the ruling party's overwhelming majority in Parliament, has given the president a free hand to alter the rules of the game as he sees fit. The reforms currently on the table also might offer a hint of his future intentions: The amendments would endow the prime minister with significant new powers in foreign and domestic policy and make him a de facto chief executive, at the expense of the president who would retain the role of the head of state and commander in chief. The largely toothless Parliament would only get marginal new powers. The proposed changes were introduced into Parliament in late September and are expected to be passed before the end of October, despite strong pushback from opposition parties.

Saakashvili denounces critics who assert that he intends to entrench himself. He insists he will put reform first and that the proposed changes will not enable any one individual to grab power. Yet he has also conspicuously refused to rule out becoming prime minister. In June he told Le Monde, "I've been thinking about that possibility [of becoming prime minister], but too many uncertainties remain for now. Who knows what the economic situation will be in two years, or condition of constitutional reform, or my mood and political rating?"

If Saakashvili seems unsure, in Tbilisi many of the opposition parties and analysts have no doubt that the president intends to become prime minister. One prominent opposition leader, Irakli Alasania, has declared, "The proposed model is an attempt to tailor the new model personally on Saakashvili." Another, Nino Burjanadze, has said, "I am sure that the new draft Georgian Constitution is connected to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's attempt to extend his powers and to continue to rule the country as prime minister."

The opposition has reason to worry. Although the last few years have produced some much-needed reforms, Saakashvili has also repeatedly co-opted the language of democracy to camouflage his moves to strengthen his grip on power. For example, for all the government's talk of the need to reform the judiciary, its failure to do so has been strongly criticized by friendly governments, including the United States. The executive has similarly espoused the importance of media freedom. But since it forcibly closed the opposition TV station Imedi in 2007, no fully independent nationwide TV channel has broadcast in the country.

Of course, it would be relatively straightforward to refute the speculation. Saakashvili could declare that he will not run for prime minister and include in the amendments a provision giving effect to that declaration, as prominent opposition figures have suggested he do. Further provisions could be introduced to increase the authority and independence of the Parliament. There could be genuine consultation with the opposition parties instead of the largely token talks to date. The proposed reforms could be subjected to review and endorsement by the new Parliament due to be elected in 2012.

Western governments have generally remained silent on what they assert is an internal matter. They are faced with an ongoing dilemma -- whether to support a Western-aligned and ostensibly reformist head of state, or to challenge his heavy-handed tendencies. Since the war with Russia, geostrategic calculations have caused them to largely opt for the former.

As for Saakashvili, he has much to be proud of, despite some missteps. He has dragged Georgia into the 21st century, modernized its economy, and laid the foundations for durable democratic government. But if he wants his legacy to be that of a genuine reformer, and not a post-Soviet style authoritarian like Putin, then he must entrench democratic reform, step down from power in 2013, and allow Georgians to choose their future leaders for themselves.



Pakistan Goes Rogue

What the sole footnote in Bob Woodward's Obama's Wars tells us about Europe's growing fears of a terrorist attack.

Something brewing in Europe has spooked counterterrorism officials. On Oct. 3, the State Department issued a rare warning to Americans, urging them to show vigilance during their trips. Over the last week, European counterterrorism officials have escalated their precautions: The Eiffel Tower has been cleared twice in the last three weeks because of bomb alerts, and special anti-terrorism forces have been active on French streets. The threat, which covers France, Britain, and Germany, is reportedly of a "Mumbai-style" attack by al Qaeda. In November 2008, terrorists wreaked havoc on the Indian port city by launching coordinated attacks against hotels, restaurants, and tourist sites, killing 166 people. Could the same sort of horror be in store for Paris, Berlin, or London?

An unusual footnote in Bob Woodward's Obama's Wars sheds light on where responsibility for such an attack might originate. Indeed, it is the only footnote in the whole book.

Woodward's footnote qualifies a line reporting that, within 48 hours of the Mumbai attacks, then CIA Director Michael Hayden told Pakistani ambassador to the United States Husain Haqqani that CIA intelligence showed no direct link to the Pakistani military's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate, the country's main spy agency. "[T]hese are former people who are no longer employees of the Pakistani government," Hayden reportedly told Haqqani. However, the U.S. intelligence community would apparently revise this assessment because there, at the bottom of page 46 of Woodward's book, are the words: "The CIA later received reliable intelligence that the ISI was directly involved in the training for Mumbai."

The Pakistani military would admit a month later that it had connections to individuals involved in the attack. The head of ISI, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, briefed Hayden at CIA headquarters, telling him that the planners of the Mumbai attacks, identified as "at least two retired Pakistani Army officers," were linked to the ISI, but the operation had not been authorized by the Pakistani military. It was rogue, Woodward writes, before quoting Pasha: "There may have been people associated with my organization who were associated with this. That's different from authority, direction and control."

The "rogue" quote in Woodward's book has been picked up by the Indian media because it fits with the narrative, popular among many in Pakistan's bigger neighbor, that the Pakistan military in general and the ISI in particular have ceased being national institutions subordinate to legal or governmental control. Saikat Datta, writing this week in Outlook India, described the Pakistani terrorist organizations responsible for the Mumbai attacks as "a parallel state run with quiet and ruthless efficiency by the ISI."

The Indians have a point -- and when they read Woodward's footnote, they will be even more convinced. With U.S. officials having originally assured New Delhi that the Mumbai attacks were not sanctioned by Islamabad, thereby averting Indian military retaliation, it is unclear whether they told their Indian counterparts of their revised view or left it for them to read in Woodward's book.

So far, the "R word" has yet to enter the American public's lexicon. But Obama's Wars also introduces another "R word" that holds great consequence for U.S. policy toward Pakistan: "retribution." If Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani-American citizen, had successfully blown up his SUV in New York's Times Square in May, National Security Advisor Gen. James Jones warned Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, the United States "would be forced to do things Pakistan would not like," according to Woodward. Pakistani readers of the book would have been surprised to learn that the U.S. response "could entail a retribution campaign of bombing up to 150 known terrorist safe havens inside Pakistan." Dating from George W. Bush's administration, Woodward writes, the United States already has a "brutal, punishing" plan (of which Obama has been informed): "the U.S. would bomb or attack every known al Qaeda compound or training camp in the U.S. intelligence database."

Neither "brutal" nor "punishing" sounds much like a measured response -- but Obama's Wars is clear that there aren't many options for eliminating the terrorist threat emanating from Pakistan. After the entanglements in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States is not in the business of invading any more countries -- and certainly not a country like Pakistan, which possesses dozens of nuclear weapons.

But that doesn't mean that the United States can afford to ignore the growing chaos in South Asia. When Bruce Riedel, the former CIA analyst who conducted the Afghanistan and Pakistan strategy review for the White House, briefed Obama on Air Force One, aside from another 9/11 traceable to Pakistan or a jihadi government in Islamabad, the "third bad thing" he said he feared was another Pakistani attack on India, "either directly or indirectly, Mumbai redux." The next attack would provoke an Indian military response, "and that means you are talking about the potential for nuclear war."

Last week, CIA Director Leon Panetta met General Pasha in Islamabad. Woodward's Washington Post colleague, David Ignatius, quoted a senior ISI official as saying that the two men "discussed everything possible," and Panetta had been "reassured" of Pakistan's "support for U.S. efforts in Afghanistan." Let's hope so.

Let's also hope that wiser heads emerge in Pakistan. Woodward depicts the Army chief of staff, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani (a former ISI chief himself), as unreliable and capable of telling only half the story. Nor does the civilian government offer much comfort: Zardari "doesn't know anything about governing," according to Woodward, quoting "a candid private assessment" by the U.S. ambassador to Islamabad, Anne Patterson. Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani does not merit a mention in Woodward's "Cast of Characters" or even his index.

So Europe is on alert for terrorist attacks that would likely originate in Pakistan and be controlled from Pakistan -- the two distinguishing features of the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Until Woodward's book, observers might have assumed that, in the intervening two years, the United States might have succeeded in pressuring Pakistan to place the ISI under tighter control. We can no longer make that assumption.

Perhaps we should be asking: Why is General Pasha still head of the ISI? He was, after all, appointed a month before the Mumbai attacks that Woodward, in his footnote, linked firmly to the ISI.

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