No sooner was Benazir Bhutto declared dead last week than the echo machine of American politics kicked into high gear. The White House, Congress and virtually everybody on the presidential campaign trail all repeated the same sentiment: Her tragic death must not derail Pakistan's commitment to democracy.
There are two possible explanations for this bipartisan chorus: Either democracy really is the answer to what ails Pakistan, or no leading voice in either party has the courage to utter the politically incorrect truth. Namely, that, for now, a freely elected government in Pakistan may not be in the best interests of the United States.
Consider that a recent poll there found that Osama Bin Laden is more popular than President Pervez Musharraf. That's not exactly fertile ground for the flowering of American idealism that lays behind the reflexive calls for one man, one vote.
Free elections demanded by Washington brought Hamas into the Palestinian government and the notion that democracy is a cure-all is proven wrong every time Lebanese voters go to the polls and award Hezbollah more seats. To judge from Thursday's simplistic reactions, we haven't learned our lesson yet.
We better get it right in Pakistan, whose military might makes the situation infinitely more dangerous. Because of its nuclear weapons and a powerful conventional army, the most important thing for regional and American security is keeping that arsenal out of the wrong hands. Musharraf, for all his failings, has managed to do that so far. We forget that success at our peril.
From the American perspective, the overarching problem is not that Musharraf has ruled with an iron fist. His wrong-headed crackdown on dissent in the last few months notwithstanding, the real problem is that he used the velvet glove in dealing with Bin Laden and Al Qaeda types hiding along the Afghanistan border and with those who have infiltrated the military.
His reasons are telling. Major moves against Islamic extremists are unpopular domestically and he risked widespread unrest merely by talking about them. Musharraf himself has escaped several assassination attempts by terror groups.
Bhutto, too, played a coy game with the worst of the worst during her two stints as prime minister. She claimed, for example, not to know that a top scientist in Pakistan was selling nuclear technology to North Korea and Libya, yet there were accusations she herself took part in some dealings with North Korea. And she was an early and avid supporter of the Taliban, seeing the fundamentalist group as good for Afghanistan. We know from 9/11 how that worked out.
It is understandable that American politicians would ignore that history in the immediate aftermath of Bhutto's death. And there is no doubt that an anti-democratic group, whether Islamist or not, is behind her murder and the chaos knocking on Pakistan's door.
Yet what is surprising is that nearly everyone who wants to succeed President Bush has latched on to his democracy answer as the cure for terrorism. His approach was best summed up by Secretary of State Rice, who, speaking in Egypt in 2005, articulated the ideal. Said she: "For 60 years, my country, the U.S., 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."
It's an inspiring idea, but a poor substitute for a precise foreign policy based on facts. Its one-size-fits-all philosophy has always sounded suspiciously like a liberal response to crime: more welfare, fewer cops.
Most important, democracy-as-the answer confuses Islamic terrorists with standard political movements. As these radicals have made bloody clear across the globe, they are not interested in sharing power. They don't want a seat at the table in a pluralistic society. They want the whole table and they want absolute obedience to Islamic law, as they interpret it.
It's bad enough they are creating havoc as insurgent groups in numerous countries. It would be far, far worse if they controlled the one Muslim nation that knows how to make a mushroom cloud.