Pakistan doesn't provide a new challenge for the United States. It reminds the nation of an old, familiar challenge — the balancing act of competing interests that has defined much of U.S. foreign policy dating back to the early 20th century.

Ideally, American leaders would prefer to have all allies share this nation's philosophies of freedom and democracy. But this isn't an ideal world. When it comes to deciding whether to act tough in the name of democracy or to look out for the best interests of the United States, both factors have to be weighed. Sometimes, the United States can't afford to turn its back on a dictator or a bad regime because it needs a vital ally in an important region.

Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf is testing the limits of this balancing act. Using the fight against Islamic extremism as a pretext, he has suspended his nation's constitution, arrested the top judge and at least hundreds of lawyers, cut off all but the state-run media and deployed the military in the streets.

The rest of the world can see through this game. Lawyers and judges are not Islamic extremists. The nation's high court was on the verge of determining whether Musharraf's recent re-election was legal. In addition, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, a political rival, has re-emerged as a force. These are all issues of a free and pluralistic society, not extremism.

But at the same time, Pakistan does indeed have an enormous problem with Islamic extremists. The world's worst terrorist, Osama bin Laden, is believed to be harbored somewhere within the nation's borders. Meanwhile, Pakistan has nuclear weapons, which makes the thought of an extremist, Taliban-like regime taking power unthinkable.

The Bush administration is walking a fine line with its comments in the wake of Musharraf's crackdown. It can't do otherwise. Ideally, Pakistan would embrace democracy and civil rights to the fullest extent. But then, ideally Saudi Arabia would do the same. When it comes to foreign policy, you often have to deal with the world as it is, not with the world as you wish it was.

Critics may say the administration has ignored the need to spend for democratic reforms abroad while spending too much on the military. That's too simplistic an assessment. Simply put, the United States can't afford to have Pakistan spin out of control and become an enemy.