WASHINGTON - Cultivating a crucial Muslim ally, President Bush promised Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf yesterday that working toward a Palestinian state would be a priority during his second term.
Bush defended the visiting Musharraf, who has been faulted by some for uneven cooperation in the president's war on terror, as a "courageous leader" who has risked assassination for his crackdown on al-Qaida. A senior administration official, meanwhile, played down U.S. frustration over continued refusal to allow Americans to interrogate rogue Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan about his nuclear proliferation activities.
Nor did the White House publicly mention the failure of Musharraf and the United States to catch al-Qaida head Osama bin Laden or chide Musharraf for his decision not to give up his post as army chief, a move widely criticized as thwarting the development of democracy in Pakistan.
Sitting next to Musharraf in the Oval Office after a 55-minute meeting, Bush emphasized his commitment to helping develop a Palestinian state that would live in peace with Israel. Muslim leaders, as well as British Prime Minister Tony Blair, have been arguing that progress on the Israel-Palestinian conflict is essential to defusing the anger that helps fuel Islamic extremism.
Bush called for "a world effort to help the Palestinians develop a state that is truly free: one that's got an independent judiciary; one that's got a civil society; one that's got the capacity to fight off the terrorists; one that allows for dissent; one in which people can vote. And President Musharraf can play a big role in helping achieve that objective."
Critics noted that most of those criteria are not met in Pakistan. Musharraf seized power in a coup, purged the Supreme Court, arbitrarily amended the constitution, and has never stood for election in a contested campaign, said Hasain Haqqani, a former adviser to Pakistani prime ministers who is now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"As long as a country in the Muslim world is willing to be an American friend, lapses in freedom or democracy will not be judged very harshly by the American administration," Haqqani concluded. "You can have a make-believe Parliament, you can have a show election ... and you can still get a passing grade, which is what President Bush seems to be giving General Musharraf."
Bush praised Pakistan's recent army campaign to rout al-Qaida and Taliban elements who have been hiding near the Afghanistan border.
The traditionally independent tribal area has been roiled over the unprecedented incursion by the army, which claimed to have routed 600 foreign al-Qaida fighters as well as some Taliban extremists. Human rights activists have contended that the brutality of the army tactics fomented a rebellion.
Musharraf said the main purpose of his visit to Washington was to congratulate Bush on his re-election, but the two allies also discussed trade, Pakistan's relations with India and Afghanistan, and the Middle East.
Pakistan is the third-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, after Israel and Egypt, receiving $701 million in bilateral aid for the fiscal year that began in October, and Musharraf did not make an additional aid request.
Bush thanked Musharraf for working with the United States to break up the Khan nuclear network and urged him to "make sure we're getting every nook and cranny in this global network," the senior official said. Musharraf assured Bush that it was in Pakistan's interest to do so and that "he's going to go back and make sure his people are figuring out if they've gotten everything," the official said.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.