The General Leaves His Labyrinth

by Hasan AltafMinotaur

There is, I imagine, no one on earth whose understanding of the past is completely without bias, but this problem must be particularly acute when it comes to those who, once upon a time, were responsible for creating that past: those who could change, in ways however small, the course of events, who could, or imagined they could, control whatever forces were in play, who could and did shape history. Maybe it would be best to take their versions of events with not just a grain of salt but also a pinch of pity, because for them, the stakes of this game must be higher than they are for the rest of us. They made the world we have today; all we have to do is live in it.

Evidence of this phenomenon has been ample of late (everyone writes a memoir, everyone gets the chance to plead their case before the cameras), but it became especially clear to me when former President Pervez Musharraf – the “enlightened moderate” of Pakistan’s early aughts, the dictator who dressed as a democrat only to find that he had no clothes at all – came to Washington. (World tours are a favorite pastime of both Pakistani politicians and ex-leaders, and Washington is one of the top destinations.)

He came to speak at a respected think tank about the hot topic of the moment, the US-Pakistan relationship and how to fix it, but this was essentially a fig leaf, for our naked emperor-in-exile. Musharraf’s visit was, really, a Rainbow Tour: He came to make a sales pitch. Like a good salesman, he marshaled all the evidence and analysis he could to sell to us the belief that there is only one possible solution for Pakistan, for the US and for the “US-Pakistan relationship.” That solution, of course, is him. From enlightened moderate to savior, ex-dictator on sale, buy cheap, buy now, because your last hope is that he come back to power. He’s even given us a deadline. On March 23rd, 2012, he is heading home.

Musharraf would like to be taken seriously, and he was given a serious platform and a serious reception. To me, the event seemed much more familiar, even familial. The US-Pakistan relationship is frequently compared to a bitter marriage, but at times it is also like that of a parent and child, and Musharraf reminded me of a child, caught misbehaving and trying to make himself look better by selling his sibling down the river. Former president Musharraf came with the requisite mea culpas and the admissions of failure (in his case, “negligence”), but – make no mistake about this – the sibling is worse. The implication is that Musharraf was simply incompetent, which is regrettable, rather than criminal. That sibling, on the other hand…

When it comes to Pakistan, there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly new to say, and Musharraf had little to add to the conversation (although there was an interesting digression about the “sincerity and flexibility” he recognized in Manmohan Singh, and an analysis of the existential similarity between Pakistan and Israel that seemed especially designed for his Washington audience – I doubt he will make the same comparison when he gets home). What was more striking was how sulky he looked, and tired – like a scolded child whose marbles have been taken away. Beyond tired, he looked lost: This wasn’t just any old sales pitch. It was practically desperation. He needs us to buy. He’s not an insurance salesman; he’s a Jehovah’s Witness.

That doesn’t make sense to me – I had imagined that once the dictating was done, the dictator would relax, play golf, write boring and potentially multi-volume memoirs. Especially for Pakistani leaders, who seem, dictator and democrat alike, to treat the country as a multi-generational trust fund that can always be topped up, I had imagined retirement would be a pleasure cruise. Apparently that’s not the case, and dictators don’t take summer vacations; they just wait anxiously for school to start again.

It makes a kind of sense, though: For the Minotaur, after all, the labyrinth must have been home. In none of the myths does a benevolent god take pity and offer him a private island, but even if a trickster were to spirit him out of there somehow, what would the Minotaur do without the maze? It only stands to reason that he would fight to find his way back.