WASHINGTON — Watching Pervez Musharraf perform brings to mind Fred Astaire. The Pakistani president tap-dances so nimbly across the world stage with such flair that you forget he is practicing a dying art.
Musharraf's art is running a soft military dictatorship -- albeit with civilian trappings -- in a socially fractured Islamic nation that is a nuclear power and a key front in the U.S. war on global terrorism. He has been dancing as fast, and as skillfully, as he can as he balances atop the most dangerous country on Earth.
But Musharraf's long run as President Bush's personal favorite among Third World leaders is in serious trouble. The trouble is so serious that some administration officials have quietly conducted a review of Musharraf's survivability. Their conclusion -- that he can continue to hang on -- may well ignore changing Pakistani and international realities.
Military rule was a dominant feature in the developing world of the 20th century. But it is a political phenomenon that has surpassed its use-by date as globalization reshapes the powers and purposes of nation-states. Countries run by their armed forces invariably lag far behind their neighbors economically and socially over the longer term.
So Musharraf's recent stumbles are not the only factors in his political survival being openly challenged by public protests, court cases, assassination attempts by Islamic fanatics, his fellow generals' growing restiveness and now threats from a Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Barack Obama.
The accelerating obsolescence of military rule is confirmed -- although in a very different way -- by events in Turkey, another longtime U.S. ally whose commanders see themselves as ultimate guardians and arbiters of their nation's institutions and politics.
In contrast to the turmoil of Pakistan, Turkish voters administered a peaceful if stinging rebuff to their generals by voting in parliamentary elections on July 22 to return to power the Islamic-oriented Justice and Development Party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. They did so despite an April 27 warning from the military command that such a result would bring disaster to the nation.
The Bush administration failed to oppose the generals' interference and must now deal with the changes brought by an election that effectively sends back to the barracks the military men who have long been Washington's main allies in Ankara. The vote entrenches a competent, democratic Islamic-leaning government that looks more toward Europe than across the Atlantic for its strategic relationships.
The way forward for U.S. policy in Pakistan also becomes murky, as Musharraf's angry sequential rows with the country's judges, lawyers, media, politicians and the fanatics of the Red Mosque siege unite his enemies and fracture his domestic base of support. He seems to have lost his once-sure footing as he presses to secure a second term as president.
The midweek threats voiced by Obama that he might have to cut aid to Pakistan and send U.S. troops to destroy terrorist bases in that country will further shake the confidence of Pakistan 's army and its powerful intelligence service in Musharraf's ability to continue managing Washington and secure economic help from Congress.
Obama's analysis of the Pakistan problem is accurate. But his criticism of the Bush administration's approach to Musharraf was neither deep nor broad enough. (No surprise, perhaps, since this was a campaign speech aimed more at countering Hillary Clinton than George W. Bush. But that is another column.) Despite attempts by aides to get Bush to focus on the impossibility of winning the war in Afghanistan as long as al-Qaeda and the Taliban have sanctuary in Pakistan, he has never been comfortable with confronting the Pakistani general. Bush fears that the only alternative to the brilliantly devious Musharraf is total, nuclear-armed chaos.
U.S. troops have in fact already done what the Illinois senator threatens he might order. In January 2006, they attacked al-Qaeda units in the Pakistani villages of Saidgi and Damadola, as reported in this column at the time, in an effort to force Musharraf to close down the terrorist sanctuaries. But there was no effective follow-up from Washington as Musharraf tap-danced his way through a meaningless "pacification" effort in Waziristan that has now run its course.
Pakistan continues to exist as a one-dimensional national-security state, with its military fomenting crises in Kashmir and Afghanistan to justify the army's size and its control over the politicians.
Pakistani commanders fight the tides of history as well as of democracy.
Turkey's generals seem to have understood that disaster lies down that road in the era of globalization. American policymakers need to understand, and support, the Ankara model rather than continuing to be dazzled by the fleet-footed general from Islamabad.
Jim Hoagland's e-mail address is email@example.com.
Washington Post Writers Group