President Bush says that he has never thought about canceling his trip to Pakistan this week despite widespread outrage and violent protests in several cities over the cartoons of the prophet Muhammad.
That decision is the right one. Few of his travels as president could prove to be as important as this one. As National Intelligence Director John Negroponte recently told Congress, Pakistan is the place where "many of our most important interests intersect."
It is also the case that US policy toward Pakistan is under attack from several quarters. Critics say that the administration has pursued a largely one-issue agenda with Pakistan, focusing its high-level attention on the operational aspects of the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, to the exclusion of other important US interests in the country.
Pakistanis note, some of them with considerable anguish, the contradiction between Mr. Bush's stirring statements about US support for democracy in his 2005 inaugural address and the US government's lack of serious interest in Pakistan's democratic institutions.
Critics also say that the administration has become overly dependent on the president's relationship with Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf. It is natural for our leaders to develop a personal equation with those of other countries, and Mr. Musharraf's leadership is critical as Pakistan navigates difficult waters. But there is more to Pakistan than Musharraf, and the US will still have important interests there even when Musharraf is no longer president.
Bush's visit will provide him the opportunity to respond to these criticisms, especially on the democracy front. He has already taken the first step by stating in his predeparture speech to the Asia Society that the national elections scheduled for next year "will be an important test of Pakistan's commitment to democratic reform."
Those words in support of democracy in Pakistan should be reinforced by his actions during his visit. We recommend these steps:
Address the Pakistani parliament. The United States needs to give visible support to Pakistan's political institutions, chiefly the parliament and political parties. This is the most meaningful tool we have to encourage an eventual return to real democracy. Bush should take time to meet with leaders of the political opposition, including the Islamist party coalition, the MMA, and secular parties.
Meet the press. Although there are government attempts to manipulate and place certain restrictions on Pakistan's press, it is freer now than it was during many previous governments. This would argue for a joint press conference, or better yet, for a meeting between the president and a small group of Pakistani editors including those from the major local language press.
Engage civil society. Pakistan's civil society needs visibility and support if it is to play its role in laying the groundwork for a more democratic society. Nongovernmental organizations such as the Aga Khan Foundation and the Pakistan Center for Philanthropy have been pioneers in Pakistan in microcredit and rural development. Bush should meet with a group of activists and philanthropists who have a track record of practical action.
Encourage Pakistani women's organizations. Even more important than general purpose civil society organizations is US support for Pakistani women, and women's groups; this should be a central feature of the meeting with civil society. The government was embarrassed by the gang rape of Mukhtaran Mai, but its initial attempt to limit her visibility and travel unfortunately compounded the horror of the initial assault. Bush needs to meet with those individuals who have made a real contribution to improving the lives of Pakistan's poorest and most vulnerable women.
Drop by a school with Musharraf. Musharraf, like Bush, sees himself as an "education president" and education is one of the most central issues determining Pakistan's future. Revival of the public schools, including those functioning in rural environments, is both more doable and more important than madrassah ("religious school") reform. Bush should announce a doubling in the $66 million per year the US is currently providing Pakistan in assistance in the education sector.
With a little creativity, all these events could fit inside a one-day itinerary for Bush in Pakistan, and still leave time for other, vital discussions with Musharraf. Doing so would also underscore a pledge the president made in his Asia Society speech: "The United States will continue to work with Pakistan to strengthen the institutions that help guarantee civil liberties and help lay the foundations for a democratic future for the Pakistani people."
Teresita C. Schaffer, a former US ambassador in South Asia, is director of the South Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Karl F. Inderfurth served as US assistant secretary of State for South Asian affairs (1997-2001) and is a professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.