Which is more critical to the United States in the Islamic world -- that a government be democratic, or that it be a friend and ally in the war against al-Qaida and Islamic extremism?
In the Bush era, the answer has seemed unequivocal.
We are for democracy first. For democracy is the best guarantee of our security interests. As Condi Rice famously said in 2005 at Cairo University:
"For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people."
As the United States expelled the Soviet Union from the Middle East, brought peace between Egypt and Israel, and won the Cold War, Rice's statement was both false and full of hubris and condescension toward 11 U.S. presidents, who, whatever their failings, put U.S. interests above all else.
Nevertheless, democracy first became declared Bush policy.
Pursuing it, Bush and Rice demanded elections across the Middle East. What did they produce? Victories for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Moqtada al Sadr in Iraq and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran.
Why did free elections fail to advance U.S. interests?
Because the most powerful currents running in the region are populism, nationalism, Islamic fundamentalism, anti-Zionism and anti-Americanism, all of which translate into popular recoils from leaders seen as too close to the United States. In survey after survey, Arab and Islamic peoples declared Bush to be the least admired world leader and America among the least respected of nations.
And if the volatile peoples of this region harbor such hostile attitudes, why would we insist on elections that would bring to power regimes responsive to those attitudes?
After the victories of Hamas and Hezbollah, stability did not look so bad and the White House seemed to back away from its demand that friendly autocrats and monarchs seek the approval of the masses at the ballot box. U.S. interests, in friendly regimes, appeared to have trumped democratist ideology.
Now, however, the United States is demanding that Pakistan's President Gen. Pervez Musharraf remove his uniform, end the state of emergency and hold free elections, which we anticipate will be won by the Pakistan Peoples Party of Benazir Bhutto or the Pakistan Muslim League of Nawaz Sharif. Bhutto and Sharif were both prime minister twice in the 1980s and 1990s, and both were charged with corruption and forced to flee after the 1999 coup of Musharraf.