ON WEDNESDAY, Pakistan’s Supreme Court struck down a 2007 program granting amnesty from corruption charges for President Asif Ali Zardari and 8,000 other government officials. The ruling creates a grave political problem for Zardari - and obliges President Obama to reconsider the way Washington has conducted relations with Pakistan. To avoid making a dicey situation worse, Obama’s guiding principle must be to make sure that America is not identified with any one Pakistani politician or party.
Pakistanis resentful of US meddling commonly cite a back-door deal orchestrated in 2007 by the Bush administration. At the behest of Washington, General Pervez Musharraf, who was president at the time, arranged the amnesty that allowed Zardari and his wife, Benazir Bhutto, to return from exile so she could lead her Pakistan Peoples Party in elections. Bhutto was assassinated, and her husband became prime minister. Not without reason, many Pakistanis who are angry about Zardari’s corruption and ineffectiveness hold the United States responsible for imposing him on their country.
Nothing would be gained, however, if Washington’s backing were switched to Zardari’s chief rival, Nawaz Sharif. Sharif served two earlier terms as prime minister, interludes remembered for rampant corruption, nuclear proliferation, and his penchant for cozying up to Islamist militants.
Obama must also avoid any hint that America would like another military-run government in Pakistan. Another cause of America’s plummeting popularity in Pakistan is the widespread perception that the Bush administration, while touting democracy elsewhere, was all too happy to partner with Musharraf’s undemocratic military regime.
America depends on the Pakistani military to root out jihadists and Al Qaeda leaders. The soundest way to retain that cooperation is to reduce average Pakistanis’ distrust of America. That can be done by providing US aid for infrastructure and schools, reduced tariffs on Pakistani textiles and, above all, an end to meddling in Pakistani politics.