MANCHESTER, N.H. – Two Democratic presidential candidates with extensive foreign policy experience warned Thursday that the current unrest in Pakistan is reminiscent of events that led up to the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-81.
Joe Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Bill Richardson, a former U.N. ambassador during the Clinton administration, said the U.S. is in danger of repeating the mistakes that led to one of the nation's worst international debacles of the last half century.
Biden and Richardson, speaking separately to the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College, both called for new aid policies to restore democracy and prevent a failed state.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf declared emergency rule last Saturday and granted sweeping powers to authorities to crush political dissent. Both Democrats said U.S. support for Musharraf is similar to the support offered to the unelected leader of Iran, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, before he was overthrown.
"Pakistan has strong democratic traditions and a large moderate majority," Biden said. "But the moderate majority must have a voice in the system and an outlet with elections. If not, moderates may find that they have no choice but to find common cause with extremists, just as the Shah's opponents did in Iran three decades ago.
"But unlike Iran, Pakistan already is a nuclear state."
Richardson said he would considering cutting off aid to nations, such as Pakistan, that flout good governance. He noted the United States has given Pakistan $10 billion since 2001, mainly to benefit the military.
"We made the mistake years ago of backing a dictatorship in Iran. We're paying for it today. ... Unless we advocate democracy and human rights and a dramatic change in Pakistan, we're in danger of making the same mistake," Richardson said during a general question-and-answer sessions about U.S. security.
In 1979, hundreds of militant Iranian university students seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran because they objected to U.S. support for the deposed Pahlavi. About 70 Americans were held hostage for 444 days. They were released on Jan. 19, 1981, minutes after Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president.
Biden said this scenario could be repeated, only this time with nuclear implications.
"It is hard to imagine a greater nightmare for America than the world's second-largest Muslim nation becoming a failed state in fundamentalists' hands, with an arsenal of nuclear weapons and a population larger than Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and North Korea combined," Biden said.
Biden proposed tripling U.S. non-security aid to Pakistan to $1.5 billion a year for the next 10 years, another $1 billion if Pakistan can provide measurable results in cracking down on Islamic extremism and an addition $1 billion bonus if the country can stage valid elections.
"You might say, particularly here in New Hampshire, that's a lot of money. It is a lot of money, but it's about what we spend on one month of the war in Iraq," Biden said, referring to this first-in-the-nation presidential primary state's reputation for fiscal conservatism.