Steve Chapman

If that's the alternative, anyone would agree we should suppress our gag reflex and keep our arms around the dictator. But it's also possible that he's more a help than a hindrance to Islamic extremism.

His intelligence service, which had worked closely with the Taliban, is assumed to be riddled with sympathizers. On top of that, his army has proven unable or unwilling to vanquish the Islamist militants who operate freely along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, occasionally venturing westward to attack U.S. and Afghan forces.

Musharraf claims the state of emergency is essential to fighting terrorism, but every police officer assigned to block the movements of former Prime Minister and opposition leader Benazir Bhutto (900 of them at one point) is one who could be hunting Islamic terrorists. On top of that, taking the fight to peaceable, democratic groups does not bother the jihadists in the least.

By treating moderate opposition as criminal, the general is bound to push more Pakistanis to extremism. So our alliance with Musharraf may contribute to the very outcome we count on him to avert. But pushing him out might bring in a civilian government that, like previous civilian governments, will be incompetent, corrupt and unsustainable. The result: more chaos, feeding more radicalism.

By now, the spectacle looks like a remake of a movie we've seen before, in which a dictator who has been our friend loses popular support and comes crashing down. But which movie? Is it the happy one, in which we pushed out Ferdinand Marcos to usher in an era of democracy? Or the grim one, when the Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the shah of Iran and established a radical anti-American theocracy?

Soon we will have to choose, keeping in mind two chilling facts. The first is that not choosing is a choice. The second is that in this game of the Lady or the Tiger, there may be a tiger behind every door.

Steve Chapman

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

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