We all have questions about Pakistan. Will civil war convulse the country? Will jihadists, rulers of Taliban-friendly provinces, conquer all of Pakistan? Will Musharraf himself be deposed in a military coup? Precisely what variety of "opposition" do the opposition groups actually represent? Lawyers? Jihadis? And what of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, leader of Pakistan's largest political party?
But there is one question more urgent than any other: What will happen to Pakistan's nuclear arsenal? The experts are agreed on an answer, just as they are agreed on all the answers: Nobody knows.
This isn't to say a consensus isn't emerging on what the United States should do next. In fact, two pundit groups have quickly formed, splitting conservatives in particular in a significant way. They come down to (1) supporting, or at least acknowledging, Musharraf as the lesser of many evils, including the Taliban; and (2) supporting democratic elections in Pakistan as the only possible moral choice. While the Bush administration seems to have decided to follow both policies simultaneously -- generating more muddle -- it's worth considering the two camps because they will probably set the tone of foreign policy debate for some time.
First, the Support Musharraf crowd. Writing at National Review Online, Stanley Kurtz makes the case: "Given the size and strength of the Islamist threat, and given the unique social role of Pakistan's army, a military government may be the only real bulwark against the potential disaster of a nuclear-armed al-Qaedastan." Powerline.com's Paul Mirengoff is inclined to agree. So, too, is the Heritage Foundation's Helle Dale in the context of "hold your nose diplomacy." Columnist Jack Kelly puts it this way: "Often the only choices we have in foreign policy are between bad and worse. In Vietnam in 1963 and in Iran in 1978, we chose worse. Let's not do that again."
That mention of "choosing worse" in Iran in 1978, the year Jimmy Carter disastrously pulled the rug out from under the Shah, thus clearing the way for the far more repressive regime of Ayatollah Khomeini and malignant jihadism to take hold in the region, is plenty compelling to me. But this argument carries little weight with conservatives who even now -- even after elections across the Muslim world have advanced the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas in the Palestinian Authority, and a parliament in Iraq whose only show of unanimity, as far as I know, has been a vote to condemn Israel in its 2006 war against Hezbollah -- believe Democracy Is the Answer.
"Support for consensual government is ultimately our only choice," writes Victor Davis Hanson at NRO's The Corner. Max Boot, at Commentary magazine's blog Contentions, writes: "The administration should now make clear, by holding back further aid to Pakistan if necessary, that its support for democracy is more than rhetorical." He adds: "There is at least a possibility that a more popular and more legitimate government may have more success." Gordon Chang, also writing at Contentions, goes out on the democracy limb farther still: "From all we know, free elections (in Pakistan) would produce moderate leaders."
If we think of Musharraf as the Shah with nukes, banking on "at least a possibility" that all will come right at the ballot box is a dicey way to safeguard key American interests, particularly given how badly Westernism has fared with Muslim electorates. Meanwhile, recent polls fail to indicate Pakistanis are likely to vote in a government that could reasonably be described as "moderate."
Yes, Benazir Bhutto is very popular, with findings from Terror Free Tomorrow showing her drawing more support (63 percent) than both Osama bin Laden (he gets a disturbingly large 46 percent) and President Musharraf (38 percent). But Sharia, or Islamic law, is popular, too. As Jeffrey Imm points out at The Counterterrorism Blog, the same poll and another from World Public Opinion indicate that between 60 and 76 percent of Pakistanis seek more Sharia throughout Pakistan. This is anything but "moderate." In fact, this popular desire for Sharia dovetails nicely with Taliban plans to turn Pakistan into an all-Sharia state.
Considering other popular sentiments -- for example, when asked by World Public Opinion to rank government priorities, Pakistanis listed defeating "Al Qaeda, the Taliban and other Jihadi groups" dead last -- the will of the Pakistani people looks unlikely to amount to an asset, for example, to American troops fighting in the region. And aren't troops in harm's way to protect our national security our real moral imperative?