Stability in Pakistan is a matter of global concern. The nuclear competition with neighboring India ensures that. Hence this week's military coup in Islamabad demands a quick, decisive response from the United States, the European Union, and other powers in a position to exert some influence.
Their main message to the coup leader, Gen. Pervaiz Musharraf, should be an unequivocal demand to return to constitutional processes. The now-deposed government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was no bargain. It botched economic recovery, countenanced corruption, and had its own tendencies toward autocracy. But it was elected, and the proper way to get rid of it was through political means, not the retrograde tactic of armed takeover.
The Western powers have some economic leverage in Pakistan - approval of pending international loans and trade deals - and they should use it to push General Musharraf toward a commitment to restored democracy.
India, meanwhile, has to be shaken by this turn of events. Mr. Sharif, for all his inconstancy, did take the step early this year of meeting with Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, sparking hopes of real peace between their nations. An undeclared war in Kashmir, caused by Pakistani incursions, dashed those hopes. And the man now in charge in Pakistan is believed to have orchestrated the fighting in Kashmir.
But Musharraf's intentions are by no means clear. He is thought to be a professional soldier with little interest in governing. In the ranks below him, however, are many who would like to see Pakistan move toward a more Islamist form of government. Another possibility is a coup-appointed government of technocrats, unelected experts who would try to restore political and economic order.
Only one path makes good, long-term sense for Pakistan: a renewed commitment to civilian rule focused clearly on the public good, rather than personal aggrandizement.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society