President George W. Bush has not telephoned Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf since he imposed emergency rule and cracked down on protesters in a crisis that the White House on Tuesday called a “mistake.”
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino also described the situation in Pakistan as a setback and a crisis in its “early days,” and said it was premature to call Musharraf a dictator.
She rebuffed questions about why Bush had not picked up the phone to personally speak to Musharraf, who he considers a key ally in fighting terrorism, by saying Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was taking the lead.
Hundreds of lawyers, opposition politicians and political activists were detained after Musharraf declared emergency rule on Saturday.
“President Musharraf, we believe, has made a mistake. We are gravely concerned about the situation,” Perino said. “We are calling for an immediate return to civilian rule, and we are in communication with them because we have a lot of cooperative interests.”
Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, a Democratic presidential contender and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, spoke with Musharraf by telephone and described the conversation in a statement.
“I told President Musharraf how critical it is for relations between our two countries that elections go forward as planned in January, that he follow through on his commitment to take off his uniform and that he restore the rule of law to Pakistan,” Biden said.
“It is clear to me from our conversation that President Musharraf understands the consequences for his country and for relations with the United States if he does not return Pakistan to the path of democracy.”
The United States views Pakistan, which borders Afghanistan, as a key ally in fighting al Qaeda and the Taliban. But at the same time, the Bush administration has stressed that Musharraf should take greater steps toward democracy, including giving up his post as army chief.
“The president feels very strongly that President Musharraf knows exactly how he feels about the situation,” Perino said.
The White House response to the crisis in Pakistan has been contrasted to Myanmar’s crackdown on pro-democracy protesters when Bush and his wife, Laura, repeatedly spoke out to condemn the actions of Myanmar’s military rulers.
Asked about the apparent double standard, Perino said: “I can understand why that question would be asked, but I think everyone has to remember that we’re in the early days of a crisis.”
Pakistan has been moving on a path to democracy, she said. “Democracies take time to develop. It is not easy. And this is certainly a setback.”