WASHINGTON -- Islamist barbarians are at the gates. The president declares de facto martial law. The country's democratic forces of the center and left, led by well-dressed lawyers and a former prime minister, take to the streets.
What is America to do about Pakistan? Opposition leader Benazir Bhutto knows just how to appeal to America. In a New York Times op-ed, she quotes President Bush back to himself: "All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you."
Bhutto (Harvard '73) is a good student of American politics. She caught Bush's democratic messianism at its apogee, the same inaugural address in which he set "the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."
Universal democratization is lovely but it cannot be a description of day-to-day diplomacy. The blanket promise of always opposing dictatorship is inherently impossible to keep. It always requires considerations of local conditions and strategic necessity.
Lebanon, for example, has a long tradition of democratic norms going back to independence in 1943. America's current policy (backed strongly by France) of vigorous support for an independent Lebanese democracy is not utopian. Sudden democratization of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, however, is utopian -- an invitation to the kind of Islamist takeover that happened in Gaza and nearly occurred in Algeria.
Pakistan is not the first time we've faced hard choices about democratization. At the height of the Cold War, particularly in the immediate post-Vietnam era of American weakness, we supported dictators Augusto Pinochet in Chile and Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. The logic was simple: The available and likely alternative -- i.e., communists -- would be worse.
Critics of America considered this proof of our hypocrisy about defending freedom. Vindication of these deals with the devil had to wait until the 1980s, by which time two conditions had changed.
First, external conditions: The exigencies of the existential struggle of the Cold War were receding as the Soviet empire was rapidly weakening. Second, internal changes in both Chile and the Philippines produced genuinely democratic opposition movements enjoying broad popular support and legitimacy.
With a viable democratic alternative at hand, the Reagan administration turned about and decisively helped push the two dictators out of power. Under Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Paul Wolfowitz, we supported Corazon Aquino's "people power" revolution in the Philippines and arranged a Hawaii exile for Marcos. Under Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America Elliot Abrams, we pushed Pinochet into a referendum that he lost, thereby ushering the transition to today's flourishing Chilean democracy.
The only thing we know for sure about Pakistan is that there will be no such happy ending. President Pervez Musharraf was a good bet in 2001 when, under extreme pressure from the Bush administration, he flipped and joined our war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. But like Marcos and Pinochet, he has now become near-terminally unpopular, illegitimate and destructive to his own country. Is it time to revisit the 1980s and help push him over the edge?
That depends on whether we think Benazir Bhutto is Corazon Aquino, and whether Bhutto and her allies can successfully take power, which means keeping both the army and the country intact. Heightening the risk of dumping Musharraf is that external conditions today are not like the relatively benign conditions of the 1980s. The Taliban and their allies are gaining in strength, and waiting to pick up the pieces from the civil war developing between the two most Westernized, most modernizing elements of Pakistani society -- the army, one of the few functioning institutions of the state, and the elite of civil society, including lawyers, jurists, journalists and students.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice attempted to engineer a marriage of these two factions by trying to orchestrate Bhutto's return to Pakistan under a power-sharing agreement that Musharraf has just blown to pieces.
Our influence should not be overestimated. But we need to make clear our choices. The best among the awful ones Musharraf has presented us is to try to broker a truce between the two forces before the blood starts to flow, keep Musharraf to his promise of holding early parliamentary elections -- which Bhutto will win -- and then guarantee him a dignified and gradual exit that assures his protection while Bhutto and her allies claim legitimate authority and try to reach accommodation with Musharraf's successor as military chief.
It's a long downfield pass. But Musharraf never consulted us on the choice of plays.