FEW OF US are immune to the seductive image of the man on the white horse--the incorruptible leader who will ride to the rescue, sweep away the corrupt and small-minded and impose peace and order. In Pakistan, many ordinary people have such hopes for Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who staged a coup against an unpopular elected government. Even the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan seems somewhat susceptible to such hopes. "I am confident he is a moderate and patriotically motivated," America's envoy says of the general.

Democracy seems to have failed this Asian nation of 140 million people. Corruption is a way of life, and tax collections have fallen almost to zero; the state does not function, or functions only for the rich. The two leaders who have alternated in power, Benazir Bhutto and the recently ousted Nawaz Sharif, both failed their country miserably. Indeed, Mr. Sharif in some sense began the coup against democracy that Gen. Musharraf completed by placing Mr. Sharif under house arrest. The prime minister had turned against the Supreme Court, the press and other institutions essential in a free society; Pakistan provides yet another reminder that elections are not enough to constitute a democracy.

There's no question, either, that Gen. Musharraf has provided some welcome reassurances in his first few days in power. He said he wants peace with India, and he promised to back up that wish by withdrawing some troops from the border. On a now openly nuclear subcontinent, this is no small matter. The general also spoke out against religious intolerance--balm to those who worry about the appeal of Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan. And Gen. Musharraf promised a restoration of democracy. "This is not martial law," he said about the martial law he has imposed. "This is another path to democracy."

But the general has yet to explain when or how democracy will be restored. On the contrary, he has set out a long list of problems that need to be solved first, including corruption, a failed economy, a breakdown of law and order and so on. There's not much reason to believe that a career military man, with no clear road map and no governing experience, will handle these problems more successfully than his predecessors. There are few models around the world of coup plotters who have succeeded as civilian administrators. This is in part because dictators invariably begin to believe the sycophants who gather around them. Without checks and balances, without political competition, there is nothing to push them back on track when they go wrong.

Gen. Musharraf seems to believe that Pakistan had hit rock bottom, thus justifying his drastic action. But things can get worse--and likely will--if a military regime ensconces itself. The United States should not pay lip service to democracy while also welcoming the general as a man it can deal with. For Pakistan's sake, the Clinton administration this time should mean what it says about democracy, and act accordingly.