WASHINGTON -- Islamist barbarians are at the gates. The president declares de facto martial law. The country's democratic forces of the center and left, led by well-dressed lawyers and a former prime minister, take to the streets.
What is America to do about Pakistan? Opposition leader Benazir Bhutto knows just how to appeal to America. In a New York Times op-ed, she quotes President Bush back to himself: "All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you."
Bhutto (Harvard '73) is a good student of American politics. She caught Bush's democratic messianism at its apogee, the same inaugural address in which he set "the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."
Universal democratization is lovely but it cannot be a description of day-to-day diplomacy. The blanket promise of always opposing dictatorship is inherently impossible to keep. It always requires considerations of local conditions and strategic necessity.
Lebanon, for example, has a long tradition of democratic norms going back to independence in 1943. America's current policy (backed strongly by France) of vigorous support for an independent Lebanese democracy is not utopian. Sudden democratization of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, however, is utopian -- an invitation to the kind of Islamist takeover that happened in Gaza and nearly occurred in Algeria.
Pakistan is not the first time we've faced hard choices about democratization. At the height of the Cold War, particularly in the immediate post-Vietnam era of American weakness, we supported dictators Augusto Pinochet in Chile and Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. The logic was simple: The available and likely alternative -- i.e., communists -- would be worse.
Critics of America considered this proof of our hypocrisy about defending freedom. Vindication of these deals with the devil had to wait until the 1980s, by which time two conditions had changed.
First, external conditions: The exigencies of the existential struggle of the Cold War were receding as the Soviet empire was rapidly weakening. Second, internal changes in both Chile and the Philippines produced genuinely democratic opposition movements enjoying broad popular support and legitimacy.
Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.
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