Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf obviously does not take President Bush seriously when Bush calls for free and fair elections. It's time for the United States to threaten a cutoff of military aid and go through with it, if necessary.

It's a major step, but Musharraf is making it unavoidable because he is impervious to polite urging and is determined to keep himself in power using authoritarian methods that increasingly harm the U.S. war on terror.

The threat of an aid cutoff should be made to Musharraf in private. If that's not part of the president's arsenal of arguments, then Bush is not serious about pushing Pakistan toward democracy and away from eventual chaos.

If Musharraf rejects a private threat, then it ought to be made publicly and Congress should help by passing a concurrent resolution this week calling for a cutoff and promising to pass binding legislation early next year conditioning aid on specific progress toward democracy.

Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., has taken a useful first step down that road. Chairwoman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs, Lowey has announced her intention to push an amendment shifting Pakistan's $150 million-per-month military aid to civilian projects unless free elections are held.

A threat to cut off military aid and an actual temporary cutoff, if it comes to that would not represent the abandonment of U.S. dedication to Pakistan, the Pakistani military or the war on terror. To the contrary, it would represent a definitive statement that the United States is serious about all those interests.

In the process of unveiling the threat, Bush could do worse than to quote President John F. Kennedy's famous 1962 remark: "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable." It's exactly what Musharraf is doing now.

For years, Musharraf has convinced U.S. leaders that he is all that stands in the way of an Islamic-radical takeover of his country and the unfolding of the nightmare scenario that puts nuclear weapons into the hands of Al Qaeda.

According to Boston University scholar Husain Haqqani, author of a book on the Pakistani military, this amounts to "blackmail." Musharraf, he says, actually has helped keep the Islamic threat alive in order to keep United States aid flowing.

Pakistani troops are active again in Taliban-dominated areas of the country, but for months Musharraf let jihadists gain strength and infiltrate neighboring Afghanistan, to the outrage of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Instead of helping the Afghan government thrive and extend its authority, Musharraf has maintained a long-standing Pakistani policy of keeping Afghanistan a weak state so it can focus on arch-enemy India a policy that does not help U.S. interests.

Inside Pakistan, Musharraf is in political alliance with Islamists, some with ties to extremists. He has done little to replace radical madrassas by funding public education.

Even more fundamentally, by repressing Pakistani democrats rigging elections, exiling or jailing opponents and defying constitutional law he has set up mosques as the only outlet for oppositionist sentiment.

On Nov. 3, Musharraf imposed "emergency rule," claiming that it was necessary to protect national security, but his forces have been cracking down not on terrorists despite increased suicide bombings but on lawyers, judges, journalists and political activists trying to maintain constitutional law.

To its credit, the Bush administration tried to forestall martial law, tried to broker a deal whereby Musharraf could stay on as president if Harvard-educated democrat Benazir Bhutto was elected prime minister, and he has urged Musharraf to leave his post as chief of the army in order to restore civilian rule.

None of it has worked, however. Bhutto is under house arrest. The possibility of a power-sharing deal is withering, with Bhutto demanding that Musharraf quit as president and vowing never to serve with him, and with him casting insults at her and arresting activists of her Pakistan Peoples Party.

Musharraf is trying to mollify the United States by promising to take off his uniform possibly today and to allow elections early next year. But the elections would be held under emergency rule with no opportunity for candidates to hold rallies, with media outlets shut down and with activists in jail.

Moreover, the elections would be run by the same electoral commission that presided over Pakistan's last parliamentary vote in 2002, which international monitors called "deeply flawed," with millions of eligible voters cut off the rolls.

This month, a survey team from the U.S. International Republican Institute an official arm of the GOP reported that "it is hard to imagine how elections conducted under a state of emergency could be considered free and fair." The Bush administration has insisted on "free and fair" elections, but Musharraf is defying the call.

So, the big question is: Who calls whose bluff? The Bush administration needs to tell the Pakistani army generally speaking, a stabilizing influence in the country that a military-aid cutoff would be lifted the minute plans are in place for free elections with international monitoring.

The military might well decide that Musharraf represents a threat to Pakistan's security and demand that he leave office as he well might be required to do if Pakistan's Supreme Court were allowed to rule on his eligibility.

Musharraf's designated successor as army chief, Lt. Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, is generally regarded by Pakistani Democrats as a solid anti-Islamist who would keep the country and its nuclear arsenal secure if an elected government took power.

Musharraf often has been compared to the Shah of Iran, whose abandonment by the Carter administration in 1979 led to a takeover by Islamic revolutionaries. But it's worth noting that those leading the charge against Musharraf at least now are not like the Ayatollah Khomeini. They are lawyers, judges and Bhutto, the rap against whom is that she is too pro-American.

Every election result and international poll indicates that Pakistan's people want democracy, not either Islamic rule or military dictatorship. The United States in its own interest needs to do its utmost to help them achieve that aspiration.

(Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.)