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.
Under Secretary of State John Negroponte delivered this tough message to Musharraf and was rebuffed, though the general agreed to step down as commander in chief by the end of the month and hold elections in January, in which he intends to run again for president.
A new Supreme Court, the previous justices having been ousted by Musharraf before they could rule against him, has declared that the general is eligible for a new five-year term.
Thus, we now have a nation of 170 million Muslims with nuclear weapons in political chaos. Tribal leaders in the border regions have been giving sanctuary and support to the Taliban, and Islamist warriors have taken over the Swat valley, 100 miles from the capital. There are reports of army and police surrendering to the Islamists, even of defections to their ranks. The roadside bomb that almost killed Bhutto and did kill and wound hundreds of her followers on her return is indicative of the insecurity in the cities. Pakistan could come apart.
What the situation in Pakistan tells us is that there are more important considerations than how leaders or governments are chosen. In the case of Pakistan, the first imperative is that the government in control of those nuclear weapons, be it autocratic or democratic, be stable, reliable and not hostile to the United States.
A pro-American general in charge of the army and nuclear weapons may be preferable to having custody of those weapons turned over to a coalition government of politicians brought to power through a plebiscite in a country where anti-Americanism is pandemic.
Indeed, given our failure to anticipate or predict election results in Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq and Iran, how can we be sure that Islamists will not win a share of power in Islamabad?
Not only in Pakistan, but in other Muslim nations like Egypt and Turkey, military men willing to intervene to prevent their countries from falling to Islamism are surely preferable to elected Islamists like Ahmadinejad or elected leaders who may feel compelled to bend with the prevailing radical winds.
Order comes first -- for without order, there is no true freedom.
When one considers that today Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and the sheikdoms of the Gulf are ruled by monarchs, and Iran's president was democratically elected, we ought to recognize that while free elections are nice, national interests come first.