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Tanner's Prescription

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One of the most enduring presences on the Tennessee political scene has been 8th District congressman John Tanner of Union City, a Democrat who, since his first election to the office as a state legislator in 1988, has never been seriously tested by an opponent, Republican or Democratic.

One of the reasons is that Tanner, though a leader of the Democrats' conservative "Blue Dog" faction, faithfully attempts to strike a balance between competing points of view as well as to propitiate the expressed will of his constituents. Better than most faced with such a task, he avoids the "on the one hand/on the other hand" mode of temporizing, though the final result of his thinking doesn't necessarily please everybody.

Such might be the case with his answer to a question posed to him last Friday night, when Tanner, something of a foreign-policy maven, was the featured speaker at the culminating "Frontline Politics" event sponsored by the Greater Memphis Area Chamber of Commerce at the East Memphis Hilton.

Whom should we side with in the ongoing confrontation in Pakistan between the autocratic government of Pervez Musharraf and ostensible democratic reformer Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister freshly returned from exile? Not an easy question, and Tanner, after ruminating out loud over the pros and cons of the matter, finally came down, reluctantly but decisively, on the side of the status quo. What's at stake in the region is stability, the congressman said, and that's especially needful in the case of Pakistan, not only a de facto ally in the so-called war on terror but a country in possession of a decent-sized nuclear arsenal.

Not everybody will be satisfied with Tanner's conclusion, especially those who see the issue posed in Pakistan to be the simple one of tyranny versus democracy. And who, after all, can fail to be inspired by the spectacle of all those protesting lawyers in business suits who let themselves be carted off to jail by the current regime's police?

Even so, there are good reasons to heed Tanner's caveat, especially since one of Musharraf's accomplishments in office, through fair means or foul, has been to repress the ever-present minions of al-Qaeda, who are well represented in Pakistan and who are thought to be providing a haven there for Osama bin Laden. How certain can we be that Bhutto, who had tendencies toward authoritarianism (and corruption) herself before being thrown out of office in 1996, would be able to keep the lid on the problem?

Beyond that, our experience in Iraq has surely taught us something about the dangers of overthrowing dictators. Saddam Hussein was no paragon, to say the least. But he was A) secular and B) strong enough to hold the festering parts of that country together against potential (now long since actualized) religious anarchy. Much the same can be said of Musharraf, and it has to be considered, as Tanner indicated, whether the cure for authoritarian regimes (which are surely to be preferred to totalitarian ones) can be worse than the illness.

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