Many Americans can recall the political turmoil that came with the Watergate Scandal in 1972, but few understand its correlation to events currently unfolding in Pakistan. Just as Richard Nixon was brought down from the highest seat of power through allegations of corruption, President Asif Ali Zardari is facing threats from political opposition and the Supreme Court over his involvement in Memogate. However, the major difference between the travails of Nixon and Zardari is the Pakistani military, which has historically stood as an unchecked political force willing to sabotage democratic regimes. Thus, before the U.S. turns away from Pakistan completely, Americans should understand differences between Memogate and Watergate, in order to understand the ramifications of the current controversy embroiling the nation.
The Memogate controversy has its origins in the aftermath of the Osama Bin Ladin raid, where accusations were lodged by the U.S. against the Pakistani Army and its intelligence agency, the ISI, for harboring Bin Ladin. Fearing that the military’s culpability in hiding Bin Ladin would be revealed, the military leadership purportedly asked for permission from various Arab monarchies to perform a coup.
Asif Ali Zardari purportedly concluded that the military had decided to remove him from power, and it is alleged that he had conversations with Pakistan’s Ambassador to the U.S., Hussain Haqqani. These conversations allegedly resulted in a memo being written and sent to the U.S. government asking for help in stopping a potential military coup. In exchange for the American support, the memo promised that Pakistan’s civilian government would work more aggressively to pursue a wide range of American interests.
Soon, the memo, its contents, and its source were revealed by Manzoor Ijaz, who allegedly acted as a liaison between the U.S. and Pakistan government. Hussan Haqqani resigned from his post and returned to Pakistan, and the Pakistani Parliament took notice of the issue. Concurrently, the Supreme Court of Pakistan took notice, asking petitioners to explain their claims and under what basis the court had jurisdiction. While direct allegations against Zardari or Haqqani have not been leveled by the Court, the Court’s order did note possible charges of treason for guilty parties, and Haqqani has been placed on the Exit Control List, prohibiting him from leaving the country.
Though the Pakistani Supreme Court has drawn on the case of Nixon v. U.S. as legal precedence for launching an inquiry on the role of the President in this controversy, one should step back and compare the acts of Zardari and Nixon. In Watergate, President Nixon and his aides hired burglars to break into a political rival’s headquarters and illegally wiretap them. Nixon and his associates thereafter tried to cover up their involvement in the scandal and paid “hush money” to the individuals arrested.
On the other hand, Zardari, an elected president, was attempting to stop an unconstitutional military coup from taking place. Rather than holding the military officers who conspired against the civilian government responsible, the media and courts seem to blame Zadari for continually attempting to ‘sell-out’ to the Americans. If the facts were the same in Watergate, and Nixon was caught trying to stave off a coup by the CIA, he would be lauded as a national hero, rather than face treason charges, as is the former Ambassador Haqqani and possibly President Zardari.
However, politics and law in Pakistan is always subject to manipulation by the Army and ISI, and Zardari knows this. This is one of the many reasons why the President refused to answer the court’s request, claiming absolute sovereign immunity. Under Article 248 of Pakistan’s Constitution, a sitting head of state is immune from criminal prosecution. Though President Nixon did not enjoy the same constitutional guarantee of immunity, the U.S. Supreme Court had granted sovereign immunity to Presidents so long as they acted within the scope of their job in good faith. The only way to punish the wrongdoing of a President, either in Pakistan or the U.S., is through impeachment by the legislative branch.
Anticipating the sovereign immunity defense, the Pakistani Supreme Court cited to U.S. v. Nixon in its Memogate order, because, in that case, the U.S. court rejected President Nixon’s blanket claim of immunity. However, it is important to note that the U.S. Supreme Court was not contemplating a criminal prosecution for President Nixon. Prosecutors had already determined that Nixon would enjoy immunity from criminal prosecution while sitting as president, but they were continuing with a case against his aides and required evidence from him. Nixon took the case to the Supreme Court, where he argued that absolute immunity protected him from being forced to produce evidence before the court, which the justices rejected.
In the end, Nixon capitulated to the court, but his resignation came in order to avoid impeachment by Congress, not because of a potential criminal prosecution. However, in Pakistan, it is not clear what the Supreme Court has envisioned for its end-game. The petitioners in the case have justified jurisdiction under Article 5 and 6, which speak to loyalty and treason. The question that must be asked: if the Supreme Court finds that Zardari is guilty of treason, what action can they take?
The American Supreme Court never considered deposing the president or putting him in jail for corruption, as the Constitution assigned this duty to the legislative branch. The same goes for Pakistan, where the Parliament enjoys the exclusive constitutional right to impeach the president, a power which the Supreme Court does not possess.
Finally, the consequences of any destabilization of Pakistan’s civilian government are far graver than in America, even in the chaos of the 1970s. Unlike the U.S., Pakistan’s military has always been a looming shadow willing to stunt the growth of democratic governance and snatch up power. There is certainly no love-loss between Zardari’s Administration and the military, especially considering last weeks’ statements by Prime Minister Gilani rejecting the Army’s status as a “state within a state.” Therefore, while the chorus of disapproval for Zardari from political opponents and the Court resembles the sound of democracy, they are all playing the military’s tune. And the Army stands in the wings ready to enjoy the rewards of toppling another civilian government.
In the meanwhile, the United States has halted most of its aid to Pakistan, as trust for the nation is wearing thin from the White House to Capitol Hill. However, before turning a cold shoulder to the nation as a whole, it is imperative to note that it is not democratic institutions which control foreign policy in Pakistan, but the military. Most of what the U.S. bemoans about Pakistan being duplicitous or sabotaging American attempts to reconcile with the Taliban emanate as strategies from the military.
Political analysts have not found a common interest shared by the U.S. and Pakistan because they have failed to delineate the civilian from the military power structures. If one realizes that the U.S. and the civilian government are both being sabotaged by the military, then abandoning the nation completely as an ally seems impractical. It is through comparisons like Watergate and Memogate that one understands the benefit of a having democracy free from the will of an unelected army. But more importantly, it should bolster America’s resolve to contribute civilian aid to a government in crisis, not because it is the most capable or most transparent government in history, but because the other option has been tried before and is so much worse.
The writer holds a Juris Doctorate in the US and is a researcher on comparative law and international law issues.