Steve Chapman

As a source of contentment, being the world's only superpower is greatly overrated. With power goes responsibility, including responsibility for what happens in critically situated, faraway countries that we understand dimly and can't necessarily control. Like Pakistan, where we find ourselves playing a game of the Lady or the Tiger, in which a wrong guess is fatal.

The country is in the grip of a crisis brought on by President Pervez Musharraf's imposition of a state of emergency. When he seized power in a military coup in 1999, he said the previous government carried "a label of democracy, not the essence of it" and promised to create a true model. Plenty of people in Pakistan, disgusted with the failures of the deposed civilian government, were happy to believe him.

The democracy project, still unfinished eight years later, now appears to have been cancelled entirely. Musharraf suspended the constitution not to counter the enemies of democracy but the friends, including lawyers who had been marching in suits and ties and shouting, with charming restraint, "Dictatorship? Not acceptable."

The Supreme Court, he feared, was about to invalidate his recent re-election because he had not quit the military. So he cashiered the chief justice and fired a crowd of uppity judges. Meanwhile, police lowered a blanket of silence on the country by locking up thousands of critics and shutting down independent TV stations.

These steps brought words of disapproval from the Bush administration -- which claims to be the champion of democracy in the Islamic world and hates to be proven wrong by its friends. In response, the general grudgingly promised to hold elections early next year.

At the same time, he ignored complaints that a state of emergency does to free elections what winter does to your flower garden. The administration was dissatisfied, but not enough to threaten a cutoff of aid, which could be the end of Musharraf.

President Bush is in a highly unenviable position. Once an ally of the Taliban, the general switched allegiances after Sept. 11, 2001, when a Bush administration official threatened, as Musharraf recalled, to bomb Pakistan "back to the Stone Age." His help was crucial in the war in Afghanistan, and now he faces a growing Islamist insurgency, which has carried out several spectacular suicide bombings. The administration's wholly rational fear is that if we topple Musharraf, something much worse could follow. Imagine the Taliban with nukes.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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