Pakistan looking at the United States in the process of deciding what government it should have is like a patient seeing hovering over him a doctor who has killed his last two patients.
In Afghanistan, the United States was the surgeon who put the patient out, opened him up and then left him on the operating table to run off to start surgery on another, richer patient. In Iraq, the United States as surgeon removed vital organs and limbs and then realized he did not know why he had operated in the first place nor how to complete the operation.
And now we are talking about what government in Pakistan should take the place of the one in power, as if America's leaders had any idea how to govern Pakistan and which Pakistani leaders would be most appropriate to do so. It would be comic if it weren't tragic, and if thousands of Pakistani lives weren't at stake, and perhaps American lives as well if some of the crazier propositions being talked about in Washington were to come to pass.
First, where did the idea go that Americans believe in the right of people to determine their own government? It is a principle that has been at the core of American values since the Declaration of Independence from British rule in 1776. And if it is our right, how come the Pakistanis don't have it as well? Is it because they have darker skins than most of us, or because they are Muslims, or because their army is not as good as ours? What exactly gives us the right to imagine that we can decide who should be in charge of Pakistan, or how that person should reach that position, whether it be Gen. Pervez Musharraf, some other general, Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif, Imran Khan or someone else?
Can we imagine the high dudgeon that Americans would go into if some foreign country were to begin pronouncing itself on which of the presidential candidates now competing for the nominations would be acceptable to them as U.S. president? The last time a foreign country tried to interfere in American domestic affairs openly was during the Civil War, and that attempt, by Great Britain, was rebuffed.
Put aside the question of right -- which we may not if we believe in our own principles -- which one or group in Washington knows enough about Pakistan to make that kind of decision? Pakistan is an enormously complex country. Its Northwest Frontier Province and the North and South Waziristan tribal areas are in constant rebellion. The various warlords there do not respect the authority of the central government in Islamabad and have the bad habit of killing Pakistani government forces who go there to enforce the authority that the borders drawn on the maps suggest. The Pakistani government in Islamabad also faces a continuing revolt in Baluchistan, some of whose inhabitants would like it to be a separate "Stan."
The amusing part is that, whether one likes Gen. Musharraf or not, he has continued to show a refreshing independence in the face of American admonitions to veer from his course, pitches ranging from a President Bush phone call to the visit there at the weekend by Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte.
It is interesting that the envoy sent by the administration was a career diplomat, not a more highly visible political figure such as Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice or even semi-careerist Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates. It could be that the administration knew that Gen. Musharraf was going to hang tough and that they considered it better that the nonpolitical Mr. Negroponte take the Pakistani president's stiff-arm, rather than one of them.
The alternatives to Gen. Musharraf that the administration is playing with and talking about are a lesson in themselves. One of them is fashionable ex-prime minister Benazir Bhutto, said to be a favorite of both Ms. Rice and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzad. She has been prime minister twice, and has been thrown out twice for corruption.
If stability and security in Pakistan are of interest to the United States -- and they have to be -- for the securing of Pakistan's nuclear weapons, for it to serve as a reliable base for U.S. and NATO military action in Afghanistan against the Taliban and al-Qaida, and for the well-being and economic development of the Pakistani people -- Ms. Bhutto's return to the country gave an indication of what her rule there would mean. Her "welcome home" parade started at the airport and quickly blew up with a bomb attack and slaughter and wounding of hundreds of Pakistanis. Her response was to demand the right to undertake another long parade across the country to gain supporters.
Whether Ms. Rice and Mr. Khalilzad like her or not is not the point; the fact of the matter is that Ms. Bhutto in charge of Pakistan -- if she were elected -- could be a nightmare for Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and America.
Gen. Musharraf should have elections, as scheduled, in early January. If he as president feels that probable security conditions in the country permit a lifting of the current state of emergency in the country in advance of those elections, so be it. He should unshackle Pakistan's press. He should be sure that all the serious candidates are free and able to campaign, although the Pakistan government should be under no obligation to protect high-risk undertakings in the name of campaigning such as Ms. Bhutto's intended rolling target.
The question of whether he "takes off his uniform" -- that is, steps down as army chief -- for the parliamentary elections should be another matter left to the Pakistanis and him. They will have the opportunity to vote to express their opinion on that subject, whatever choice he makes.
America's message to Pakistan as it approaches these elections should be that we would like them to be as free and democratic as possible, but that is an opinion we express as a friend, not as a country that is thinking of invading Pakistan. We have already made enough of a mess of Iraq and Afghanistan.