What happened
President Bush on Wednesday told Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to step down as army leader and hold parliamentary elections. Bush’s phone call was the first contact between the leaders since Musharraf imposed emergency rule on Saturday, sparking protests from lawyers and activists. Former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, recently returned from exile, urged her supporters to join other activists planning a major rally on Friday, and a 250-mile march through the politically influential Punjab province.

What the commentators said
The U.S. will have to do more than scold Musharraf to do any good, said the Los Angeles Times in an editorial (free registration). He is using “the so-called war on terror” to justify what amounts to a “war on the rule of law and his country's independent judicial system.” Congress should suspend military aid to Pakistan until “the rule of law is restored” and every political prisoner arrested in this wave of repression is released “unharmed.”

Musharraf’s methods are “deplorable,” said Roger Cohen in The New York Times (free registration), but he’s not like the murderous dictators of Pakistan’s past. “Musharraf, as his Jekyll-and-Hyde alternation of military and Savile Row gear suggests, is a dictator with a gentleman’s itch. He’s playing for time. The United States must use his vulnerability” to get him to hold elections, work with Bhutto, and “get real” about “quashing the Taliban” along the Afghan border.

The U.S. has to “collaborate military” in the fight against the Taliban and al Qaida, said The Providence Journal in an editorial. But Musharraf’s power grab won’t make that job any easier. He clearly imposed martial law to “thwart” the supreme court’s imminent decision to invalidate his recent election to another presidential term. His strong-arm tactics “have given much more legitimacy to the opposition,” including both democratic forces and terrorists, and Washington won’t gain anything by “propping up” a dictator who puts himself before his people.