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Pakistan’s been a problem child for so long that even the dramatic appears mundane nowadays. Pakistani militants killed in drone strikes, the judiciary threatening to bring down an elected government—these are nothing new. But a poll released Wednesday ought to make even the most seasoned watchers sit up and take note. Pakistan’s frustrated population is growing ever more extremist, and many are starting to see a charlatan as their political savior.
The Pew Global Attitudes Project reveals that nearly three out of four Pakistanis view the United States as an enemy, up from about two out of three who felt that way two years ago. At 12%, the U.S. approval rating in Pakistan stands in last place, tied only with the Jordanian view of America. Nor has more than $20 billion in aid to Islamabad over the past decade had the desired effect. Roughly one in 10 Pakistanis say its impact was positive; four times as many say the opposite.
Chronic anti-Americanism in Pakistan signals a deeper malaise. In a stinging rebuke to President Asif Ali Zardari’s four-year-old government, nine in 10 Pakistanis say they’re dissatisfied with the direction in which the country is headed. Though the military has ruled Pakistan for 34 of its 65 years, bankrupted the treasury and tarred Pakistan’s reputation through its support for terrorism, more than three-quarters of those polled call it a good influence. About the same proportion hold an unfavorable view of neighboring India.
This disquieting news works to the advantage of one man: 59-year-old cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan. His 72% approval rating—up from 52% just two years ago—is enough to give any rival heartburn. Even with the caveat that rosy poll numbers don’t always translate into actual votes, Mr. Khan’s prospects appear bright.
Elections must be held by early next year. They may well be moved up, given the current standoff between the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party and Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry over the latter’s demand that the new prime minister, Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, write a letter to the Swiss government asking for a corruption investigation of Mr. Zardari to be reopened. (Earlier this month, Mr. Ashraf’s predecessor, Yousuf Raza Gilani, accepted dismissal rather than betray his boss.)
At first blush, it’s easy to see why so many Pakistanis are eager to embrace Mr. Khan. Not counting nine years of military rule by Gen. Pervez Musharraf, most of the past quarter century of democratic politics has been dominated by two largely discredited families: the Bhutto-Zardaris of Sindh and the Sharifs of Punjab. Battered by charges of graft and mismanagement, Mr. Zardari has seen his approval rating fall to 14%. Nawaz Sharif, whose last government was overthrown by the army in 1999, fares significantly better, but nobody’s about to mistake him for a breath of fresh air.
With his craggy good looks and reputation for personal probity, Mr. Khan presents a contrast. For some in the middle class, the Oxford-educated Mr. Khan offers a reminder of happier times—of a confident Pakistani elite at ease in the world before economic decline and the rise of fundamentalism took their toll. In a rudderless land, the image of Mr. Khan leading Pakistan to a fairy-tale triumph in the 1992 Cricket World Cup is etched in the national memory.
Nobody ought to begrudge Pakistan a way out of its present mess, but Mr. Khan offers less a solution to Pakistan’s pressing problems than a window into its delusional politics. He blames America, specifically the war on terror, for the rise of radical Islam in Pakistan and advocates the same pugnacious approach toward the world’s sole superpower favored by hardline elements in the military. “Confronting the U.S. won’t destroy us,” he declared on Urdu language Dunya TV. “Look at Iran. What have they been able to do with Iran, which doesn’t even have nuclear weapons?”
Framing America as the source of Pakistan’s problems goes hand-in-hand with Mr. Khan’s proposed kid-glove treatment of terrorists. For him, the Taliban are not medieval savages intent on imposing a primitive version of Islam on an unwilling population; they are merely misguided brothers in faith.
Representatives of Mr. Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice) party regularly share a stage with the Defense of Pakistan Council, an agglomeration of militant groups and Islamist parties whose leading lights include banned terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba founder Hafiz Muhammad Saeed and Sami ul-Haq of the hardline Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam. Among Mr. Khan’s best-known supporters are the nuclear proliferator A. Q. Khan, former head of Pakistan’s intelligence agency Hamid Gul, and Shireen Mazari, a foreign policy analyst steeped in conspiracy theories about American designs on Pakistan.
Mr. Khan’s economic message also doesn’t inspire confidence. His pledge to end all corruption in Pakistan within 90 days of coming to office seems absurd even for a politician in campaign mode. Nor does his oft-repeated vision of Pakistan as an Islamic welfare state—a kind of Sweden with modestly dressed women and minarets—square with reality. What Pakistan needs is fiscal responsibility and an investment friendly climate, not proto-Islamist daydreams.
It’s too early to tell whether Mr. Khan will be elected to lead Pakistan, much less whether circumstances will force him to temper his ideas. Meanwhile, however, he would do well to consider another sobering fact from the Pew survey. Majorities or pluralities in six of seven countries polled—including “all-weather friend” China and Muslim-majority Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia—hold a negative view of Pakistan. To change this, Pakistan needs a leader who takes seriously both the threat of radical Islam and the challenge of economic development. Imran Khan is not that man.
Mr. Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for WSJ.com. Follow him on Twitter @dhume01
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