Barack Obama's election was supposed to make America decidely more humble about idealist talk of promoting democracy abroad. But while it's hard to know just what was really accomplished during today's dramatic meetings with Hamid Karzai and Asif Ali Zardari, one thing stood out: a very clear emphasis from the Obama team on... democracy. In their public remarks, Hillary Clinton, press secretary Robert Gibbs, and Obama himself all made references to the "democratically elected presidents" of Afghanistan and Pakistan. (Politico rounds up some of them here.) I find the talk particularly conspicuous when it comes to Pakistan. In her surprise White House briefing today, for instance, Clinton referred to Zardari as the "democratically elected president" of Pakistan, and then paused to add: "Being able to say 'democratically elected president of Pakistan' is not a common phrase"--a reference to a country with a long history of military coups. In his House testimony yesterday, Richard Holbrooke likewise took care to affirm America's support for "a democratic Pakistan headed by its elected president."
I've heard some people wonder recently whether Pakistan might be better off under firm military rule rather than under the seemingly hapless Zardari. Musharraf 2.0, in other words. But the Obama administration clearly isn't buying that for now. And it's hard to argue. I don't have a ton of faith in Zardari, but his predecessor, the military ruler Pervez Musharraf, mainly created the illusion of progress against militants rather than actual progress. Musharraf's heavy-handed approach to the judiciary, moreover, alienated the country's educated middle and upper classes, while American support for his dictatorship poisoned Pakistani public opinion towards the U.S. (During the Bush era, incidentally, Joe Biden was a particularly vocal critic of Musharraf's anti-democratic rule. And for all his idealistic talk, it was George W. Bush who spent years looking the other way at the nature of the general's regime.)
All that said, it really does seem like General Kiyani is the one holding Pakistan together, and there's no sense in ignoring the facts on the ground, either. If Zardari can't hold power and Kiyani steps in--not at all an implausible scenario--would Obama refuse to recognize his authority?