Paradoxically, Gen. Pervez Musharraf may have accelerated his downfall by taking on radicals that he had to destroy. If he hadn’t taken the Red Mosque radicals out, that would also have weakened him by showing that he’s incapable of dealing with threats to the peace. In most of the world, the Ghazi brothers would be little more than David Koresh-style radicals. But taking them on the Pakistan, like most of the Islamic world, is a lose-lose. Leave them alone and the threat festers; destroy them and they become martyrs and symbols for a righteous cause.

Gen. Musharraf took the Pakistani government in a bloodless coup in 1999. He had been appointed Pakistan’s top general by the then Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, over senior officers because he was seen as a loyal yes-man. So much for that. Eight years later, Musharraf still rules one of the most difficult and cantankerous countries in the world; Sharif isn’t allowed to enter Pakistan at all.

Pakistan itself was created by partitioning India. Those who propose partitioning Iraq along sectarian lines on the hope that it will create peace, think twice: Are India and Pakistan best of friends now? Is their relationship the source of world peace or a major threat to it? Pakistan is the source of the Taliban’s rise to power in pre-9-11 Afghanistan and it’s the source of many of the terrorists who have been trying to attack the UK. And it may be where al Qaeda’s leadership is holed up today. Imagine a Sunni Iraq, partitioned from and embittered to its Shia and Kurdish neighbors. Or imagine a Shia partition in southern Iraq, allied to Iran and constantly chafing against Saudi Arabia to its south. Partition is not a magic bullet for Iraq; it would probably cause as many problems as it solves. Just to take one more side road, the “rubble makes no trouble argument” ought to be a non-starter among serious observers as well. Rubble makes an awful lot of trouble when it’s left alone and dark forces can slip in and operate. See Afghanistan circa 1999-2001 and Somalia for examples. So we probably ought not partition Iraq, and we can’t just leave it in a state of chaos and destruction.

Which brings us back to Musharraf. Like Pakistan itself, he is a study in contradictions: His government supported the Taliban’s rise to power in neighboring Afghanistan, but after 9-11 he allowed Pakistan to become one of America’s most important bases of operations against the Taliban. Musharraf and his ISI has helped capture some of al Qaeda’s most notorious operatives, such as 9-11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed, but Musharraf has allowed the Taliban and thereby al Qaeda safe haven in tribal Waziristan and the ISI itself is divided in its loyalties. Musharraf rules Pakistan as a dictator, but by most accounts a benign one who allows opposition parties and press to have their say. And he doesn’t really rule the tribal areas of Pakistan at all. His writ in Waziristan is so weak he has all but ceded it to the Taliban. Still, the closest analogue to Musharraf might be Turkey’s modernizer, Kemal Ataturk. From a civil liberties point of view Ataturk was a monster in many ways, but the Turkey that he created hasn’t been a threat to the West or Israel and hasn’t spawned significant terrorist factions in the way that, say, Saudi Arabia has. Musharraf doesn’t appear to be anywhere near as uncompromising as Ataturk was in suppressing radicals who threaten the peace. His government’s support for the Taliban prior to 9-11 casts a long shadow over Musharraf’s possible career as a liberalizing and modernizing force for Pakistan.

But Musharraf might be the best we can hope for in the Islamic world for the foreseeable future. The push to democratize the Middle East has already brought Hamas to power in Palestine and sectarian parties like the Iran-linked SCIRI to power in Iraq. By popular demand, sharia has been written into the Afghan and Iraqi constitutions. Parties like Hamas and SCIRI and Moqtada al-Sadr’s political militia appear willing to use democracy to take power, and just as willing to discard democracy as Satanic once they have gained a solid grip on that power. Sadr has embraced and rejected democratic power multiple times, as the winds in Iraq have shifted. If Musharraf were to allow free elections in Pakistan today, it’s a safe bet that a coalition including Islamist parties would end up dominating the government, and they would do what they could to increase the power of sharia over Pakistan even if the majority didn’t want it. This month’s raid on the Red Mosque, nexus of radical fervor in Islamabad, was the right thing to do from a strategic point of view, but might well cost Musharraf his rule. Red Mosque sympathizers have set off a string of bombings across Pakistan intended to ramp up chaos and weaken him and are threatening more revenge. So far, 137 people have died in retaliatory terror attacks. In one of the latest, 17 Pakistani soldiers were killed when ambushed by Qaeda/Taliban fighters in Waziristan (and the soldiers killed 15 of those fighters in the same attack).

And that’s the dilemma: What a dictator like Musharraf might do that we see as good and necessary, like taking on the radicals in his midst, might well endanger his rule, which in turn endangers us because if he falls, we lose a key ally and the radicals who might gain power after deposing him would get their hands on a nuclear state. Our push to democratize should logically include Pakistan, but not anytime soon because recent history tells us that it would be a mistake to allow democracy to displace him. So we’re stuck with a dictator whose continued rule mocks the democracy drive. The same is true in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, all of which are either dictatorships or non-democratic monarchies, and where democracy would probably put radicals in power.

Reeling back the past few decades, the Middle East has seen every conceivable form of government, from Western-backed monarchs to Soviet-backed Stalinists to Wahhabi-based oligarchy to indigenous Islamic revolution to benign but mildly corrupt and licentious oil sheiks to terrorist kleptocrats. None of them have worked very well, either for the people of the region or for those of us on the other side of the world. There are two forms of government that haven’t been tried: caliphate and democracy. The re-establishment of the caliphate is the radicals’ dream end state and not at all what we want; democracy is the centerpiece of the Bush strategy for reforming the Middle East, and it’s not turning out to work very well either. We get purple fingers voting in the Mahdi Army in Iraq and voters choosing Hamas in the PA (not that there was much of a choice there, with terrorist Fatah on one side and terrorist Hamas on the other). Given enough time, democracy might work in the Middle East as radical entities discredit themselves, but time is the one thing we may not have both for political and strategic reasons. Iran may have the bomb by the time any of today’s democracy test labs yields positive results, and the Iranian bomb would empower the region’s most radical government and weaken any that might stand up to it. And domestically, patience with war has just about run out.

We have made some fundamental, category errors in the Middle East over the past few years. Chief among those is the notion that culture doesn’t matter. It does. The democratization process took decades in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan and is still in progress in the Philippines, where an Islamic insurgency is underway again. In regions where Islam and particularly sharia law are prevalent, democracy isn’t always seen as a good thing by the common man.

The second major mistake we continue to make is to see the world as one in which every person desires personal or political freedom above all else. Though that was the centerpiece of President Bush’s second inaugural address and is the basis of our drive to rapidly democratize the Middle East, it isn’t true. Some people desire freedom first, but some would rather have security than freedom, or power, or riches, or 72 virgins in the sky, or any number of other things. Freedom is an abstraction that’s hard to define. Different cultures define freedom differently. In the west, freedom means conscience, speech, and choice; elsewhere it doesn’t include any of those things. It means different things to different people who have grown up in different religions, cultures and traditions. Give a man who has never known real Western political freedom a choice between that, or that he’ll get to lord some measure of power over everyone around him even while he has to swear fealty to someone bigger and meaner than himself, and he might take being the malevolent middleman of a tangible regime over the abstract notion that he can be free to do whatever he wants. Freedom, he has never seen and therefore doesn’t know and may even see as sinful. Power, he has seen and understands its uses. Many even in the liberal West would gladly trade a bit of their freedom for some power, or fame, or security, etc. The drive to socialize from the left is a drive to trade some freedom for some security, and that drive tends to be popular in every Western country but the US. And it’s gaining ground here too.

Returning to Gen. Musharraf, the man who helped us roust the Taliban but who has also given the Taliban its safety zone in Waziristan, and who may have weakened himself by doing necessary damage to the radicals of the Red Mosque, he may be the best we can hope for over the next several decades. He’s in many ways a monster — a coup leader with questionable loyalties and intentions who has ruled as a dictator for 8 years now — but me may be a good monster, or at least one that we can work with in the short and medium term. Er, if he survives long enough. And it may be that our efforts in Iraq to bring about freedom and democracy in the long term will entail working with non-democratic but non-radical and non-brutal “good monsters” in the short term.

Is this backsliding from the democracy component of our Middle East strategy? In the short term, yes, though I’d look at it as more of a strategic adjustment than a full-fledged backsliding. We gave South Korea several decades of non-democratic security, and democracy eventually took root there. Reality suggests that we’ll have do to the same for Iraq: Create security, and from that democracy might result. So we’d better get cracking to find a “good monster” we can work with to run the place in the mean time.