California Rep. Tom Lantos and Delaware Sen. Joe Biden each got an unlikely phone call on Tuesday — from the president of Pakistan, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who declared a state of emergency in his country over the weekend.
Lantos and Biden, chairmen the committees in the House and Senate that deal with foreign relations, are facing increasing calls from members of Congress to suspend aid to Pakistan.
Musharraf's suspension of Pakistan's constitution, clamp down on the media and arrest of thousands of opposition activists has drawn international condemnation. But so far, the White House has done little more than declare its disappointment and urge Musharraf to put his country back on the road to democracy.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, Musharraf has been hailed by the Bush administration as a critical ally in the war on terror. Roughly $11 billion in U.S. aid has flowed into the country — mostly for counter-terrorism operations.
Given that close cooperation, the reaction from administration officials this week has alternated between statements of disapproval for Musharraf's crackdown, and recognition of his fight against terrorists along Pakistan's volatile and porous border with Afghanistan.
On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said the administration believed Musharraf had "made a mistake," but indicated there were bigger issues at stake.
"We have to be mindful to make sure that we do not undermine any of our counterterrorism efforts ... Pakistan is a country where extremists ... are trying to take hold and have a safe haven and we had to deny them that," Perino said.
The administration's relatively passive response to Musharraf's actions in recent days exposes the delicate balancing act Washington has had to undertake — promoting democracy and stability in Pakistan while working with a military strongman to combat terrorism.
U.S. efforts to drive al-Qaida and the Taliban from Pakistan's border areas could trump the effort to promote democracy and stability.
Bob Grenier, the CIA's station chief in Pakistan from 1999 to 2002, said that stance undermines U.S. policy in a number of ways.
"Obviously it tends to undermine our credibility as a promoter of democracy all around the world," Grenier said. "I think even more importantly ... by failing to strongly support democracy, we are undermining support for an effective long-term counterterrorism policy within Pakistan.
"If the U.S. ranks counter-terrorism above democracy in Pakistan, it will not want to weaken Musharraf by imposing stiff sanctions."
Daniel Markey was a South Asia expert at the State Department from 2003 until just recently. He said there is a large and influential faction in the Bush administration that has made a strong commitment to Musharraf and is reluctant to break away from him.
"They see this as imposing costs on their ability to continue with existing operations, military operations and intelligence operations," Markey said. "The U.S. government have gotten relatively comfortable with over a period of seven years."
Gary Sick, a professor of Middle East politics at Columbia University said Washington has long run a risk by betting everything on Musharraf — making him the center of U.S. security strategy in the region. That strategy could backfire if the situation in Pakistan spins out of control.
Sick draws parallels to the overthrow of the Shah of Iran 30 years ago. The U.S. backed the Shah and had no back-up plan.
He said the crisis in Pakistan and Iran are different because the Shah was toppled by a popular revolt, whereas in Pakistan, it is the military that would most likely overthrow Musharraf. But there is a similarity in the situation faced by Washington, he said.
"We have placed a tremendous amount of trust and confidence in Pervez Musharraf," Sick said. "As he appears to be weakening, we have the same dilemma — do we back him further and thereby get even deeper in or do we look for alternatives? Unfortunately, in [Iran and Pakistan] ... there really were no good alternatives."
Sick said Pakistan is still in the early days of this crisis and things still could turn around.
Meanwhile, the U.S. should start forming a Plan B for Pakistan, he said.