ARMY House, Rawalpindi, the Bush campaign’s camp office in this part of the world, can relax. Its candidate, George Bush, is not about to leave the White House in a hurry. This is what the tea leaves suggest.

Bush need not thank his stars. He only has to thank his opponent, John Kerry, who brings fresh meaning to the words waffling and indecisiveness.

Seeing the unfolding disaster in Iraq, it wasn’t unreasonable to presume that Bush was preparing his own defeat which would be just retribution for the lies and arrogance leading to the invasion of Iraq. Sticking my neck out, I predicted some moons ago that Bush was a sure-shot loser.

Now that future-reading seems altogether too brash because wise guys like me hadn’t got the full measure of the Democratic prince-in-waiting, John Kerry. Even in those early days it was whispered that the Republicans would slam him for being a waffler and for shifting position easily. But that sounded like propaganda at the time. As it turns out, he’s more of a depressing and lacklustre champion on the stump than even his critics could make him out to be.

This was not an election for George Bush to win. With a none-too-good economic record, job losses and one Iraq lie after another steadily exposed, the cards were stacked against him. It was always an election for John Kerry to lose and as the November 2 polling day approaches, it looks more and more as if Kerry, proving true to Republican slander (modern-day Republicans being a pretty vicious bunch), has put himself on a skid that can lead only to defeat. (That is, unless I am for another change of heart before November 2.)

George Bush is the devil we know. At least there is no uncertainty or vagueness about him. He is what he is. Iraq may be a quagmire, which it is, but far from being apologetic about it or embarrassed that WMD have not been found, he says the world is a better place without Saddam Hussein. This is amazing chutzpah, enough to make you breathless, but carried off with style and a shrug of the shoulders.

Any innocent would think that John Kerry would be touching Bush’s weak spot, his Achilles’ heel, Iraq, and making it hurt. But, no, Kerry has no policy on Iraq, at least none that makes him sound any different from Bush. He says that even though no WMD have been discovered, he would still have voted for the war resolution. To which Bush’s deadpan answer has been, thanks for clearing this up.

Kerry is indeed talking about a war but one which took place more than 35 years ago. He has nothing much to say about a war going on right now, a war resulting in American deaths, loss of American credibility worldwide and costing more than six billion dollars a month to sustain. Don’t blame the American people if they eventually decide to stick with the devil they know rather than the one who seems woolly-headed and keeps changing his mind.

And hand it to Bush for being folksy and charming and not without a sense of humour. Kerry comes across as wooden and cheerless and as someone who couldn’t crack a joke to save his life.

At the Democratic convention which formally chose him to be presidential candidate, Kerry said “America’s best days are yet to come.” Did it sound convincing? Unless I am shooting my gun off too fast, Kerry is beginning to look and sound tired. And there are still two more gruelling months ahead.

This is all good news for Army House, Rawalpindi, home to President Musharraf. A Kerry victory would not undermine Pakistan’s importance in American eyes because as long as Afghanistan is in turmoil and Hamid Karzai, America’s chosen man to head the country, faces the challenge of the Taliban and warlordism, Pakistani support is crucial. But with a Kerry administration Pakistan’s alliance would be one of necessity. With the Bush White House it is much more personal and warm. Pakistan earned plaudits even at the Republican convention which goes to show how close this relationship is.

Journalists should avoid prediction, an art best left to soothsayers and diviners. If a week is a long time in politics, imagine what can happen in two months. But given Iraq, Bush should have been on the ropes by now and Kerry should have been the clear front-runner. But Bush is not on the ropes and Kerry is not the clear front-runner.

Whatever a Bush victory means for the rest of the world, it will be a huge boost, psychological and otherwise, for President Musharraf, enabling him to deal more confidently with some tricky decisions he faces at home.

Political restructuring has already been done in the shape of a new prime minister, Shaukat Aziz. Military reshuffling remains. The term of the Vice Army Chief, General Yousaf, is coming to an end as is that of the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Aziz. Some other senior generals are also set to retire before the year is out. So barring extensions, a whole stack of senior appointments will be due, sending a shiver of expectation through senior army ranks.

There’s also the crucial question of the president’s army position: will he relinquish it, as he must under the Constitution and as he promised to do in a public broadcast late last year, or will he keep it in the “national interest”, the last refuge of the stricken?

A Bush victory should give Musharraf the psychological confidence to cross this hurdle, especially when he has everything else in place — a prime minister who can be expected to run the government smoothly, a compliant enough parliament and a ruling party, the Q Muslim League, closely tailored to suit his convenience. Add to this the disarray or the weakness of the opposition parties, with their leaders in exile, and the horizon seems secure for “real democracy”.

The prime minister’s wings have been clipped to the point where it is difficult for any prime minister in this set-up to be a threat to the president. Look also at the clerical parties which are in power in the Frontier and have half a share of power in Balochistan. Although when it suits them they blow hot and cold, in reality they stand defanged, a telling indication of which is their inability to take too strong a position against the on-going army operations in South Waziristan.

If Musharraf feels threatened and insecure, you can read him all the constitutional law in the world and he will remain unmoved. A new army chief will be appointed only if he feels secure. This is only possible if anyone made the army chief also has his wings clipped, much in the manner of the beauty treatment done on the prime minister.

What is the source of the army chief’s abnormal power? Firstly, he has the sole, unfettered authority to choose his lieutenant-generals. No promotion board sits for this purpose. It’s his choice and in the normal course of things names put up by him for three-star promotions are automatically okayed by the defence ministry. Secondly, he has the sole authority to pick, choose, transfer and shift his divisional and corps commanders. No wonder everyone in the army looks up to him and what he says and wills is the law.

Any check on the army chief’s power to appoint and transfer senior commanders compromises the principle of unity of command, so essential for the health of a fighting force. But if the authority of the defence ministry in the matter of two-star and three-star promotions is restored, as it should be, that is a check that not only a new army chief should be able to live with but it is also something good for the army and the country in the long term.

Strange as it may sound, Bush’s re-election then may be the only thing which makes our president secure enough to take off his uniform.


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