Negroponte's blunt intervention in the crisis comes as a clear indication of the growing concern that the Bush administration has regarding the instability of a major ally in what it calls the war on terrorism.
Negroponte, who told the Pakistani leader that the emergency rule he decreed was "not compatible" with holding free and fair elections, comes to Pakistan armed with considerable clout. Besides his top rank in the State Department and his prestige as a veteran diplomat, Negroponte comes equipped with another weapon. Not in the least to be ignored is the substantial financial aid package the Bush administration has funneled President Pervez Musharraf to help sustain his government since 2001; to date Pakistan has received some $10 billion compliments of the U.S. taxpayer.
This financial aid is the carrot Washington will be dangling in front of Musharraf. Diplomats in Islamabad say Negroponte warned Musharraf that Washington would revisit its aid to Pakistan, much of which goes to the military.
But regardless of the clout of the negotiator or the amount of dollars involved, this wake-up call from his own people sends a clear message to Musharraf that things must begin to change. This message is reinforced by Negroponte's visit and no-nonsense attitude now being displayed by Washington. All this compiled must make Musharraf come to terms with the prospect that his jig as president of Pakistan may be coming to a close.
This is in good possibility the endgame for Pakistan's strongman, who must begin to realize he is fighting for his very survival. With Washington taking off the gloves and applying the pressure publicly, the thought must have crossed Musharraf's mind that perhaps his time to go has come. In declaring his state of emergency, the Pakistani president may have well placed the final nail in his own coffin.
The problem with autocratic leaders, aside from the trauma they cause to their country by slowing democratization, is that for the most part once they are thrown out of power they are unable to remain in the country and forced into exile. With that in mind, remaining in power for the sake of their own personal survival is enough of an incentive.
Musharraf, who first seized power in a 1999 coup, re-imposed emergency rule two weeks ago -- many observers say to avoid holding elections. Knowing he would need the support of the Bush administration the Pakistani strongman lay the blame on the country's judiciary, claiming the judges and lawyers were supporting extremist Islamists.
In a move to appease the high-ranking visitor from Washington, Musharraf repeated a pledge to resign as army chief before taking office for a second time as president. But it is unclear if Musharraf can get re-elected at this time, having lost all support from former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, when in the middle of negotiations to reinstate her as prime minister he clamped down on his political opponents. Bhutto has since let it be known that she would no longer consider sharing power with Musharraf, whom she now insists must go.
Negroponte, who met and spoke by telephone with Bhutto, urged her to resume power-sharing talks. Washington had been in favor of an alliance between Musharraf and Bhutto, which the Bush administration regarded as a positive step in combating pro-al-Qaida extremism.
Calling for calm and resumed talks the U.S. envoy said: "If steps were taken by both sides to move back towards the kind of reconciliation discussions they had been having previously, we think that could be very positive."
But Bhutto showed her resolve in distancing herself from Musharraf by proposing an arrangement with another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who has been living in exile in Saudi Arabia for the past seven years. Indeed, if things turn out the way Bhutto and Sharif now hope, it could well be that Musharraf would replace Sharif in exile, and most probably in Saudi Arabia as well.
(Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times.)
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