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Crazy like a fox?

Pakistan's new president has a shaky grip on power -- and perhaps reality.

September 09, 2008

When Asif Ali Zardari, the new president of Pakistan, was fighting a corruption case in a British court last year, his lawyers submitted documents arguing that he was too mentally and physically ill to appear. Two New York psychiatrists filed reports concluding that he suffered from dementia, major depressive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, and had serious memory and concentration problems.

There are three ways to interpret this information, reported last month by London's Financial Times: The leader of a nuclear-armed state that may be ground zero in the battle with Islamic terrorism is mentally unstable, or he faked his own illnesses in order to stall court proceedings, or he used to be sick but he's all better now. The latter is the most improbable of the three, yet it's precisely what senior officials in Zardari's ruling party are claiming.

Even before news of Zardari's troubling mental health history broke, it was clear that he would be a disastrous choice as the country's new leader. Though never convicted of a crime, he spent 11 years behind bars on various corruption charges -- and although it's possible they were trumped up by his political opponents, most Pakistanis still don't trust him. Despite his election by an electoral college made up of lawmakers from the national and provincial governments, polls show his public support at a dismal 14%. Solving Pakistan's myriad problems would be difficult even for a political superstar, but for Zardari they will be all but insurmountable.

Pakistan's troubled economy is fueling unrest, with double-digit inflation, a plummeting rupee, soaring oil and commodity prices and severe debt woes. Zardari is also under fierce pressure to reinstate the judges ousted by his predecessor, Pervez Musharraf, yet doing so might result in the repeal of the law that dropped all corruption charges against Zardari and rendered him immune from prosecution.

It's all too common in Pakistan for failed civilian leaders to be replaced by military dictators. Washington can help keep the country's fragile democracy alive by increasing financial assistance, especially to restore the electricity-generating industry; frequent power outages are adding to anger against the government. Pentagon officials should also consider easing up on cross-border raids targeting Taliban militants, at least for a short time. In a country where a wide majority of the population opposes cooperating with U.S. anti-terror efforts, the pro-American Zardari's grip on power is jeopardized by such raids.

Zardari has only a slim chance of success, but he has none at all without outside help. Shoring up his regime might keep the generals at bay until the people can pick someone else.

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