As a source of contentment, being the world's only superpower is greatly overrated. With power goes responsibility, including responsibility for what happens in critically situated, faraway countries that we understand dimly and can't necessarily control. Like Pakistan, where we find ourselves playing a game of the Lady or the Tiger, in which a wrong guess is fatal.
The country is in the grip of a crisis brought on by President Pervez Musharraf's imposition of a state of emergency. When he seized power in a military coup in 1999, he said the previous government carried "a label of democracy, not the essence of it" and promised to create a true model.
The democracy project, still unfinished eight years later, now appears to have been canceled entirely. Mr. Musharraf suspended the constitution not to counter the enemies of democracy but the friends, including lawyers who had been marching in suits and ties and shouting, with charming restraint, "Dictatorship? Not acceptable."
The Supreme Court, he feared, was about to invalidate his recent re-election because he had not quit the military. So he cashiered the chief justice and fired a crowd of uppity judges. Meanwhile, police lowered a blanket of silence on the country by locking up thousands of critics and shutting down independent TV stations.
These steps brought words of disapproval from the Bush administration - which claims to be the champion of democracy in the Islamic world and hates to be proven wrong by its friends. In response, the general grudgingly promised to hold elections early next year.
President Bush is in a highly unenviable position. Once an ally of the Taliban, the general switched allegiances after Sept. 11, 2001, when a Bush administration official threatened, as Mr. Musharraf recalled, to bomb Pakistan "back to the Stone Age." His help was crucial in the war in Afghanistan, and now he faces a growing Islamist insurgency, which has carried out several spectacular suicide bombings. The administration's wholly rational fear is that if we topple Mr. Musharraf, something much worse could follow. Imagine the Taliban with nukes.
If that's the alternative, anyone would agree we should suppress our gag reflex and keep our arms around the dictator. But it's also possible that he's more a help than a hindrance to Islamic extremism.
His intelligence service, which had worked closely with the Taliban, is assumed to be riddled with sympathizers. On top of that, his army has proven unable or unwilling to vanquish the Islamist militants who operate freely along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, occasionally venturing westward to attack U.S. and Afghan forces.
By treating moderate opposition as criminal, the general is bound to push more Pakistanis to extremism. So our alliance with Mr. Musharraf may contribute to the very outcome we count on him to avert. But pushing him out might bring in a civilian government that, like previous civilian governments, will be incompetent, corrupt and unsustainable. The result: more chaos, feeding more radicalism.
By now, the spectacle looks like a remake of a movie we've seen before, in which a dictator who has been our friend loses popular support and comes crashing down. But which movie? Is it the happy one, in which we pushed out Ferdinand Marcos to usher in an era of democracy? Or the grim one, when the Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the shah of Iran and established a radical anti-American theocracy?
Soon we will have to choose, keeping in mind two chilling facts. The first is that not choosing is a choice. The second is that in this game of the Lady or the Tiger, there may be a tiger behind every door.
Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.