Coup Season

Is Pakistan's meddlesome military up to its old tricks?

With the future of Pakistan's prime minister, president, army chief, and Supreme Court chief justice up in the air this year, there was little doubt that 2013 would be rife with intrigue in Islamabad. The country, after all, has witnessed three military coups in its 65-year history. And Pakistan has yet to see a transition of power between two successive democratically elected governments.

Today, many Pakistani observers, including human rights activist Asma Jahangir, suspect a surreptitious putsch is afoot, aided by the judiciary and a mysterious cleric-politician, Tahir-ul-Qadri, who suddenly returned to Pakistan last month from Canada. The Sufi cleric has now led three large anti-government rallies, buttressed by expensive television advertising and a professional social media campaign.

The goal, these observers claim, is the implementation of what's known in Pakistan as the Bangladesh model -- a reference to that country's army and Supreme Court-backed, technocrat  government, which governed from 2007 to 2009 and was tasked with correcting the mess caused by the two dominant political parties. In Pakistan's case, those two parties would be President Asif Ali Zardari's Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), headed by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Qadri has only heightened this suspicion by calling for the inclusion of both the army and the judiciary in selecting a caretaker government to oversee the elections expected this spring. There has been no visible public demand for including these actors in the process. And it has no justification in the Pakistani constitution, which only requires general elections to take place under the auspices of a neutral caretaker government chosen by the government and opposition, or by the federal election commission.

On Jan. 15, Qadri's plan appeared to be taking shape when Pakistani television channels broke from live coverage of his rally to report the breaking news of the Supreme Court's apparent order for Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf's arrest. It seemed perfectly choreographed: Qadri's followers erupted in celebration, and the cleric asked them to perform the namaz-e shukrana, or prayer of gratitude. For a moment, Qadri appeared to be another Khomeini -- returning from the West with an effortless victory over the ancien régime.

Alas, for Qadri -- who seems to be inspired by the late Iranian leader's "cleansing" of the Pahlavi system -- it was too good to be true. The Supreme Court's order turned out to be not nearly so bold: It was simply a notification that gives the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), a federal anti-corruption body, the ability to arrest the prime minister, who is accused of receiving kickbacks from companies involved in rental power projects, if necessary, in relation to the ongoing investigation. While the Supreme Court could push the NAB chief in that direction, the bureau could also employ delaying tactics. The government, in any case, has the ability to survive with or without the current prime minister till its tenure ends in mid-March. 

The implementation of the "Bangladesh model" also faces another hurdle: It is unlikely that the Supreme Court would ally with the army or any other non-democratic forces. Though it has legitimized military interventions in the past, the court has demonstrated its vigilance since 2007 in guarding its autonomy, and shown hostility to both civilian and military authoritarianism. This, after all, is a court led by Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who was deposed twice in 2007 for challenging military ruler Pervez Musharraf.

That's not to say there isn't good reason for the antsiness pervading Islamabad today. Pakistan is scheduled to have an unprecedented series of consecutive leadership transitions this year: General elections are supposed to take place in April or May, as the current government's tenure is ending. In September, Zardari's term concludes. In November, army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani is scheduled for retirement. And in December, the era of Chaudhry, the most powerful Supreme Court chief justice in Pakistan's history, will finish upon his retirement. 

Given the uncertainty that lies ahead, the military might be behind Qadri. The military might also be using Qadri to prevent a second term for the PPP or a return to power for Sharif, a center-right politician who clashed with three army chiefs during the 1990s. The military might even have given up on Pakistan's five-year democratic experiment as the country's economic health and security erode. Qadri, in some ways, is the perfect front man for the military: He rails against the political class, calls for strong anti-corruption measures and economic reform, and has presented himself as a "moderate Muslim" to the West, issuing a well-publicized fatwa against terrorism.

But there is no smoking gun linking Qadri to the military, which has disavowed any connection to him. The credibility of the military's distancing itself from Qadri should not be reflexively dismissed. Qadri could have simply used his massive devotional following and worldwide educational network to fill a void and audition as the savior of the military and Pakistan's anti-politics middle class.

If Qadri is indeed on a military-backed mission to force the postponement of the elections and pave the way for a caretaker government, he is likely to fail. Pakistani politicians, though known for their petty squabbling, will align against any effort to delay elections and suspend civilian rule. It's true that in the past, many civilian political parties have supported military rulers -- but today, there is a broad consensus in favor of democracy. Other power brokers, including much of the private media and civil society groups that played a key role in Musharraf's downfall, will also resist efforts to derail the country's democratic experiment. Pakistan's military, burdened with multiple counterinsurgencies, cannot afford such a backlash.

The military does, however, have a constitutional way to indirectly reduce the risks of civilian encroachments on its prerogatives. Both Qadri and Imran Khan, the ex-cricket star now head of the third way Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) party, call for empowering the Election Commission of Pakistan and strengthening its moral authority to disqualify candidates on constitutional grounds, including financial impropriety. If candidates from the PPP and PML-N are disproportionally affected, then Khan's PTI could perform better in the upcoming polls, and potentially balance out the PML-N in a hung parliament. In recent years, the PML-N has been Pakistan's strongest advocate for civilian control over the military. If it attains a parliamentary majority on its own, it will have the necessary political space to assert its authority over the military. But if it is dependent on coalition partners to form a government -- and in particular, partners that are somewhat friendly with the military -- then Sharif's political capital over the military would reduced.

During the course of his tenure, Kayani has repeatedly expressed his support for the democratic process -- though it would be wrong to say that he has been apolitical. Yes, it is possible that his support for civilian rule has dwindled: The word democracy was conspicuously absent from his Independence Day speech last August, though it has commonly appeared in his other major public addresses, including his Martyr's Day speech in May. But it would be out of character for Kayani, a deeply cautious man, to make such an indelicate push against democracy.

There might be elements in the military whose inhibitions about a coup have eased. But Pakistan is not yet hurtling over a cliff: The resolve of Pakistan's pro-democracy coalition -- its major political parties, judges, civil society groups, and television channels -- remains strong.



Pop Goes the Nominee

Vetting by trial balloon is no way to run a White House.

The Washington parlor game of taking umbrage with presidential appointments has been refined to an art form in recent days. Everyone from Rosa Brooks in these pages to Maureen Dowd in the New York Times has complained that the president's team is too old, too white, too male, too much resembling a California Raisin.

Let's be clear; Most of the Obama administration's wounds are self-inflicted. Why it rushed to roll out white, male appointees ahead of all others is something of a mystery, and will make the appointment of highly qualified women and minorities look as if the White House is engaging in damage control. But having appointed more than 40 percent of women to political slots, the administration is not quite the boys' club that Fox News and others are now bemoaning.

But people are missing the real reason for outrage regarding the president's appointments in the national security arena. For secretaries of both state and defense, the administration saw fit to float out its possible nominees via extended trial balloons. U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice did not even make it to being formally nominated to head the State Department before being torn to pieces, largely over a manufactured controversy surrounding her involvement in the Benghazi consulate attack.

Former Sen. Chuck Hagel has fared better, and despite a ferocious campaign by groups who clearly don't have the president's best interest at heart, his name was actually put forward as the nominee at defense. With Sen. Chuck Schumer's (D-NY) announcement that he would support the nomination, only a confirmation-hearing disaster or some new and ugly revelation from his past seems capable of derailing Hagel's rise to defense secretary.

Floating policy ideas and potential legislation via trial balloon is a time honored Washington tradition. It gives an administration some plausible deniability, and provides a finger in the wind before investing heavily in any given approach.

That is all well and good. But this willingness to put forth nominees, particularly for our two most important national security posts, via trial balloon is bad policy, bad politics, and an ungodly strain for those whose names are floated.

Incidentally, the origins of real "trial balloons" shed some light on why they are fine for policies but not people. When pioneering French brothers Joseph and Etienne Montgolfiere first began experimenting with hot air balloons in the 1870s, they were sensible enough not to send an actual human being up in their early test flights. Despite the fact that King Louis the XVI, who was quite taken with their work, suggested the brothers send a pair of criminals aloft, the scientists thought that sending a duck, sheep, and roster airborne was the better route. The trial balloon was born.

So why is trial ballooning top cabinet appointees such a bad idea? First, it is almost entirely unnecessary. Top cabinet appointees are very rarely rejected. As Josh Marshall noted over at Talking Points Memo, only nine cabinet appointees have been defeated in U.S. history, and there has not been a major national security cabinet appointee voted down since John Tower was nominated for defense secretary under George H.W. Bush. It just doesn't make any sense for twice-elected Barack Obama, or any other president for the matter, to give outside groups an extra chance to defeat a nominee outside of the confirmation process.

Trial ballooning nominees is especially noxious because it leaves the official whose name has been floated in no-man's land. An official nominee has the full force of the administration behind him or her. Agencies work Capitol Hill, communication experts are mobilized, and outside groups rally to their defense. A trial balloonee gets none of that. Would interagency groups have developed a far better and far faster response to Susan Rice's role in the response to Benghazi had she been the official nominee? Without a doubt.

Someone like Rice did not even get to fight back, and sympathetic groups largely stayed on the sidelines because they did not know what the administration's ultimate decision would be. Groups like the National Organization for Women came out in support of Rice when her name was first floated, but it never felt like they were in full war-room mode given that she was not yet officially the president's choice.

Look how quickly the ground shifted once Hagel went from balloon to nominee. Senate Democrats lined up behind him. Outside advocacy groups, including powerful ones like AIPAC, made clear they did not want to step into the fight. Opposition that had seemed fearful suddenly started to seem flimsy. Confirmation is certainly not a done deal, but opponents also realize that they will have to invest significant political capital if they want to derail Hagel.

Trial ballooning invites every form of character assassination because it gives opponents cost-free opportunities to snipe at the would-be nominee. If Obama thinks Rice or Hagel is the right candidate, he should nominate them -- and be prepared to fight for their confirmation. Floating policy proposals may provide an administration real political cover, but when a potential nominee gets shot down, the administration looks weaker, not stronger -- thus obviating the point of a trial balloon in the first place.

In an era when we routinely lament the unwillingness of many Americans to step up to public service, we should probably avoid hanging those already in public life out to dry. The rooster, sheep, and duck that the Montgolfiere brothers sent aloft in their balloon? All three survived. Susan Rice was less lucky.

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