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Benazir Bhutto

Say what you will about Benazir Bhutto — she was personally corrupt, autocratic by disposition, she cynically empowered pro-Taliban forces to gain a strategic advantage against India — she was by a vast margin the best hope for democracy in … Read More

By / December 27, 2007

Say what you will about Benazir Bhutto — she was personally corrupt, autocratic by disposition, she cynically empowered pro-Taliban forces to gain a strategic advantage against India — she was by a vast margin the best hope for democracy in Pakistan. To put the immediate fallout of her murder in some context, it's one thing for the areas around Rawalpindi and Islamabad to be subject to violence and disorder, and another thing for Karachi, the cosmopolitan international port city, the jewel of the British Raj, the financial hub of Pakistan that produced an economic miracle in the last decade, to teeter on the brink. But of course, it was in Karachi that the first attempt on Bhutto's life since her return to the country was made, a bombing that killed nearly 140 people and injured scores more. (I wouldn't use the passive voice if we knew who is responsible for the assassination and prior attempts; al Qaeda claims responsibility, (hat tip to Ali), declaring in celebratory tones that "We terminated the most precious American asset which vowed to defeat [the] mujahadeen.")

All of which is to say that Bhutto's murder is likely only the curtain-opener to a period of bloodletting. The sole remaining democratic alternative to Musharraf, former PM Nawaz Sharif — who is not much of a democrat even relative to Bhutto — has decided to boycott the January elections, on the grounds that "[t]he holding of fair and free elections is not possible in the presence of Pervez Musharraf." He may well be right, but in virtue of his sitting out the election, the contest for control of Pakistan and its nuclear arsenal, in the short term at least, is between the pro-Musharraf faction, which has limited popular support, and forces who are far, far worse.

Naturally, when calamity befalls another country, the important question to ask is how that calamity affects the United States, and during an election season, which candidates benefit. And sure enough, the cable news channels are featuring wall-to-wall divinations of the impact of Bhutto's assassination on the presidential race. Joe Scarborough couldn't wait until Bhutto's body was cold to pronounce Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton the beneficiaries of her slaying (the polling doesn't bear this out, by the way).

Since anybody who claims to know how Bhutto's death will move poll numbers is either lying in order to lie or lying in order to fill air time, the only question about these events that we can cogently pose or attempt to answer, and the only truly important question in the first place, is which candidate has the best Pakistan policy.

And on this count, it's not at all clear why a candidate who axiomatically favors intervention like Giuliani or McCain (or, in this case, but not axiomatically, Barack Obama) is in a substantively strong position. If we were to intervene in Pakistan — assuming for the sake of argument we had the spare personnel, which we don't — on whose side, precisely, would we intervene? To achieve what objective? A desire that Pakistan not descend into civil war is admirable, but it's not a plan, and a reflexively hawkish disposition doesn't imply any sort of wisdom in dealing with an extraordinarily complex and fractious polity whose factions violently repudiate any easy correlation between their interests and American interests.

To put it another way, the hawk/dove dichotomy is analytically useless.

Christopher Hitchens has a nice commemoration of Benazir Bhutto here:

This is what makes her murder such a disaster. There is at least some reason to think that she had truly changed her mind, at least on the Taliban and al-Qaida, and was willing to help lead a battle against them. She had, according to some reports, severed the connection with her rather questionable husband. She was attempting to make the connection between lack of democracy in Pakistan and the rise of mullah-manipulated fanaticism. Of those preparing to contest the highly dubious upcoming elections, she was the only candidate with anything approaching a mass appeal to set against the siren calls of the fundamentalists. And, right to the end, she carried on without the fetish of "security" and with lofty disregard for her own safety. This courage could sometimes have been worthy of a finer cause, and many of the problems she claimed to solve were partly of her own making. Nonetheless, she perhaps did have a hint of destiny about her.

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