The Mansoor Ijaz "memogate" scandal -- in which a Pakistani-American businessman claims to have secretly conveyed the elected government's plea for U.S. backing against his country's own military -- is sparking debate about everyone's favorite Pakistan bugaboos: secrecy and backstabbing, coups and the invisible hand. It's a long and resplendent tradition now; the hackneyed and voluble moral outrage are predictable. Like controversies past, this too will be seen from two extreme angles: a product of a plot hatched by intelligence agencies and their hypernationalist enablers, or of the turpitude of civilian politicians and their ultraliberal enablers.
Unfortunately, Pakistan offers such a wide array of intellectual seductions that getting serious about its long-term challenges requires an otherworldly calm -- even Sufi -- predisposition. It is always much more fun to try to figure out what one little bird said to another than to address the kinds of problems that will take a generation to fix -- violent extremism, poverty, and the anger of Pakistanis in Balochistan and the tribal regions.
Still, it is important to try to take stock of the big picture. And that requires looking at two fundamental challenges to the idea of a strong and stable Pakistan, something that is very much in the interest not only of 180 million Pakistanis, but also their neighbors and the international community.
First, and most importantly, is the civil-military imbalance. Daring to dream the impossible dream and aspiring to right this imbalance are the noblest of political acts in Pakistan. To be a successful and prosperous country, Pakistan must overcome its history of military domination. Large numbers of Pakistanis have learned the inescapable truth of this the hard way. Some understood it early on in the country's history. Others grasped it clearly following the devastating partition of Pakistan in 1971 or watching the hanging of former Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto following a military coup in 1977. The demons unleashed upon Pakistani society by Islamization and Afghan jihad of the 1980s convinced many more of this truth. And the disastrous consequences of the Pervez Musharraf era of military rule convinced a whole new generation that for Pakistan to be prosperous and free, an elected civilian government must rule.
Second and equally vital to a bright Pakistani future is bridging the divide between the stand-alone strengths of Pakistani individuals and the collective weakness of Pakistani institutions. Trying to address the civil-military imbalance without taking into consideration the institutions and individuals involved is a recipe for disaster. And memogate is only one such disaster.
On both ends of the political spectrum in Pakistan, memogate will inspire high-strung, virtuoso performances, dripping with both the intellect and emotion that are signs of a people fully alive to the state of their country and the challenges it faces. Some will be appalled that someone (allegedly) sought an improved civil-military balance through cloak-and-dagger means. Some will be appalled that an attempt to fix this balance may force an elected government to toe the line of unelected soldiers and spies.