Justifiable homicide is one way to think about the coup Pakistani Gen. Pervez Musharraf staged against the corrupt, inept, democratically elected civilian government in Islamabad last week. Musharraf deserves no applause for what he has done. But thus far he has not earned hanging, either.

Musharraf acted in self-defense when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif abruptly ordered him ousted and exiled. The army rallied to Musharraf, who became chief executive officer (I am not, as they say, making that up) of a national enterprise that is broken almost beyond repair--and which also happens to have the world's newest nuclear arsenal.

"We have hit rock bottom," Musharraf said in his first address to a nation that must treat that assessment as unbridled optimism. For three decades Pakistan has been ruled by charlatans, crooks, fanatics and a certifiable war criminal or two. The considerable talents and graces individual Pakistanis manifest have been relentlessly driven out of their national politics.

Throughout that downward spiral--with brief respites when sober-minded technocrats were put in charge--the United States has been there to cheer on the quack of the day as the only hope things would not get even worse, and to welcome the next quack when things got even worse.

I experienced the strength of the U.S. tilt toward Pakistan in covering, from Calcutta and then Islamabad, the 1971 India-Pakistan war, a conflict in which Pakistan's leaders had authorized genocidal campaigns against the population of Bangladesh. That was not what counted in Washington.

In his 1979 memoir, "White House Years," Henry Kissinger described Richard Nixon's deep antipathy toward Indira Gandhi as the two leaders wandered in "the never-never land of U.S.-Indian relations." When war broke out, "Nixon was for whatever course would hurt India more," Kissinger wrote. It was an emotion that other U.S. presidents hid better but still followed.

The United States sought to build up Pakistan as a counterweight to a huge, headstrong Indian democracy that Washington has never been able to accommodate easily in its strategic thinking.

And India has seemed determined to increase U.S. support and friendship--for Pakistan. New Delhi incessantly moralized about U.S. iniquities, imagined and real, while fully supporting Moscow during the Cold War. Things have not become simpler: The defiant nuclear tests ordered last year by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and that party's confirmation in power in elections earlier this month make India as prickly and difficult as ever.

So maybe the new CEO in Islamabad has it right. Perhaps things can only go up from here in the Asian subcontinent. One factor:

Musharraf's coup is rooted in career survival rather than Islamic crusade or grandiose personal ambition. Its petty origins should make everyone more realistic and modest about Pakistan's place in the world and the region. Musharraf's quick decision to withdraw his troops from the Indian border goes in this direction. U.S. officials report that Musharraf was engaged in a nasty bureaucratic struggle with Sharif over the creation, of all things, of a U.S.-style National Security Council. Would a dictator set on absolute control spend his time studying how this White House works? Musharraf's first act as CEO was in fact to create a six-person security council to run the country.

If the Pakistanis do not draw lessons from the dead-end they have reached--and history and human nature suggest they won't--the United States must nonetheless seize this opportunity to show that it has finally learned where its paramount interests lie.

Washington has nothing further to gain by manipulating, cajoling or overestimating Pakistan as a regional ally or by pretending to treat it on an equal footing with India or as a strategic bridge to China.

There is no democratic regime in Islamabad, however corrupt, that needs encouragement. There is no important ally working in concert for mutual goals: Sharif and presumably Musharraf ignored President Clinton's pleas not to go nuclear last year. Pakistan has become a sideshow in geopolitical terms.

The Clinton administration does not shed even crocodile tears over Sharif's fate. Washington urges only a return to democracy, not restoration of a prime minister who systematically undermined Pakistan's other institutions.

Such restraint about Sharif is prudent. It should be matched by U.S. distance from the new military rulers until they show their political homicide was in fact justifiable: That it opened a new way out of a national dead-end.