Pro-American dictator or anti-American democracy? That's the choice in Pakistan now, where President (and top general) Pervez Musharraf has suspended his country's constitution, fired the country's chief justice and shut down nongovernmental television stations. He said had he not acted, Islamist extremists would have taken over the country.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice continues to urge publicly a return to democracy and the ending of "extraconstitutional measures." But it didn't take long after Musharraf's move for Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell to say it "does not impact our military support of Pakistan." You don't need a translator to spot the wink-winking that is going on.
The Bush administration has no good choices elsewhere, either. Palestinian democracy has led to Hamas rule. Saudi democracy likely would lead to Wahhabi rule unmitigated by royal family decadence. The State Department pushed publicly for Egyptian elections but wasn't hugely upset when Hosni Mubarak rigged them and jailed his leading opponent.
Must the U.S. be double-faced? Or are we in this position because we've put the cart before the horse, democracy before liberty? Former Soviet dissident and Israeli government minister Natan Sharansky is helpful here: In a Nov. 3 Wall Street Journal interview, he noted, "Democracy is a rather problematic word, because democracy is about technique. I would prefer freedom."
Freedom! The movie "Braveheart" has William Wallace calling out for freedom, not democracy, moments before his death. People in the British Isles and the United States had to fight for freedom before they developed democracy. Freedom includes freedom of religion, speech, assembly and the press. Without those, democracy quickly becomes mobocracy.
Freedom of religion is especially important because it leads to the others. All religions are not equal in this regard. Some religions are by nature decentralizing, in that they give equal ultimacy to the one and the many. Christianity, with its Trinitarian core, is paramount among the decentralizers. Other religions are centralizing. Islam, with its base in the story of Muhammad -- the purportedly perfect man, who became the theological, political and military leader -- is paramount among the centralizers.
Islam traditionally does not separate church and state, nor does it separate political and military leadership. The tendency in centralized countries is to assume that others also are centralized and that events happen not because of a multitude of causes, but through the will of the most powerful. This year, World Public Opinion asked people in Pakistan (and several other Muslim countries), "How much of what happens in the world today would you say is controlled by the US?" Most respondents said "all" or "most."
Anti-Americanism rules the U.S. left and Pakistan, as well: Whenever anything bad happens, blame America first. But some Pakistanis have fallen further into conspiracy theories. Husain Haqqani, a Pakistani who directs an international relations center at Boston University, reports his countrymen recently spread rumors of a virus -- not a computer virus, a physical one -- that would kill those who answered phone calls from particular numbers. One man purportedly answered his cell phone and then "died like he was poisoned." One newspaper declared the rumor false but ran that denial under the headline "Killer Mobile Virus."
People subservient to centralized power also tend to become fatalistic. Listen to the helplessness evident in what one Pakistani laborer told a Los Angeles Times reporter earlier this month: "For us, life stays the same, even when politicians throw Pakistan into the sky, spin it around and watch as it crashes back down to earth."
What's the U.S. to do in the face of despair and ignorance? Foreign policy realism should not mean accepting dictatorships as inevitable. Instead we need to use all instruments available to promote religious and intellectual liberty. This will be a difficult process, but we have no alternative, for dictatorship means disaster for Muslim countries and more terrorism throughout the world -- and so does democracy without liberty.