It is now generally conceded that post-Cold War US presidents have far fewer foreign policy choices than their predecessors did, if at all. At will, they cannot be idealists or realists, far less being pure Hamiltonians, Wilsonians, Jeffersonians or Jacksonians. The concept of balance of power that so efficiently propped up the Monroe Doctrine and much else since is plainly useless as a defence mechanism against the Al-Qaeda in particular and Islamic terrorism in general. The American mainland was attacked once so the threat of repetition remains. What's an American president to do when foreign policy options vanish quicker than lines drawn on sand?

Move forward. The former US president, George W.Bush's neo-conservative backers got one thing a quarter-way right. This was their zeal to impose democracy either at the conclusion of a project of unilateralism (the wrong means to a noble end) or to encourage it as an alternative to Islamism or military dictatorship. When the Hamas was elected in Gaza, the cry went up that the experiment had badly derailed (forgetting that the beauty of democracy is its uncertainty), and it robbed the enthusiasm of the Iraqi democracy project (give or take, there was more press coverage of the US surge, for and against, than of the devastated country's rise from the ashes or of its capacity to govern itself). Now the United States is showing similar lack of understanding of the democratic experiments underway in two other Muslim states, Pakistan and Afghanistan, although the misunderstanding is taking different forms.

Afghanistan is more in the news because of the recent elections. Few people appreciate that it is a wondrous thing that the polls have been held at all given the murderous determination of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda (backed by Pakistan) to terrorize the Pushtun population and particularly woman from exercising their franchise. The United States also has a problem with incumbent president Hamid Karzai who it believes is thick with the warlords and will rig his way to victory. His rival is Abdullah-Abdullah who is half-Pashtun, half-Tajik, although he is generally portrayed by the media as Tajik. Part of the reason that the US has taken such a strong dislike to Karzai, although he was its stooge to begin with, is that he has secured his political position inspite of American opposition. Pakistan is poisoning the US against him as too Abdullah Abdullah. The US's Af-Pak interlocutor, Richard Holbrooke, apparently exchanged hot words during a meal with Karzai recently.

This is not the way to handle an incipient democracy. America cannot expect a reasonably performing democracy, forget a perfect democracy, to take root in Afghanistan in one generation at least, because Afghan society has had no democracy before this current run. For a democracy to succeed, a society must transform, and societal transformation takes decades, and has to be coddled along. Besides, Afghanistan has been a backward society, gripped by Islamic fundamentalism, and there are enemies everywhere who will prevent its democracy from succeeding. America needs to exhibit patience and perseverance in Afghanistan, and Holbrooke, with his bulldozer reputation, cannot help matters. President Barack Obama needs to make his Afghanistan ambassador the pointman, and open a separate channel with the elected leaders, while Holbrooke deals with the terrorist war-fighting.

In Pakistan, a different kind of neglect is happening. The Pakistan military and intelligence establishments are being privileged with US attention while the elected Pakistan government and its president, Asif Ali Zardari, are getting short shrift. (On the other hand, the US short-sightedly does not want to recognize Nawaz Sharief who is growing popular by the day.) The whole point of getting rid of General Parvez Musharraf was to get the light of democracy lit in Pakistan. That purpose is getting defeated. On the present course, Pakistan's elected government will come under the sway of the military and intelligence establishments (it may already have), because it is not getting the encouragement of frequent engagement with the US political leadership. The US may think it is best to talk to the military and twist its arms to fight the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. But not only is that tactic not working, it is hurting the legitimacy of the Pakistan government. If the US conveys all its requirements through elected leaders, and holds military leaders accountable for not carrying them through, that will both empower the elected government and show the military its place. Ultimately, it is democratic governments in Afghanistan and Pakistan, backed by Western military power, that will keep the terrorists out, and the US should accept that this is a long-term project.

Such a project and the vision that underlies it will be Wilsonian. But it will be Hamiltonism also because it would come with the application of military power. What's more, it will serve the goals of Jacksonian and Jeffersonism too by keeping the American mainland secure from terrorist attacks with economic benefits flowing later. America can learn from India's democratic practices in Jammu and Kashmir. In poll after poll, voters have defied terrorists. That's the way to go in Afghanistan and in other terrorist-infested Islamic territories.