Friday, December 28, 2007

The Political Character of Benazir Bhutto

I implored readers in an earlier post to "join me in reflecting on the awesome life of a freedom crusader, Benazir Bhutto, 54."

I thought I might get a little flak on "freedom crusader," a line fairly synonymous with "neoconservative," but I've had no takers so far.

Not everyone had glowing words for Bhutto, however, considering Ralph Peters' commentary today on Bhutto's political character. Peters calls 'em like he sees 'em, and his view of Bhutto is unblinkered by her frequent and lofty calls for Pakistani democracy:

FOR the next several days, you're going to read and hear a great deal of pious nonsense in the wake of the assassination of Pakistan's former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto.

Her country's better off without her. She may serve Pakistan better after her death than she did in life.

We need have no sympathy with her Islamist assassin and the extremists behind him to recognize that Bhutto was corrupt, divisive, dishonest and utterly devoid of genuine concern for her country.

She was a splendid con, persuading otherwise cynical Western politicians and "hardheaded" journalists that she was not only a brave woman crusading in the Islamic wilderness, but also a thoroughbred democrat.

In fact, Bhutto was a frivolously wealthy feudal landlord amid bleak poverty. The scion of a thieving political dynasty, she was always more concerned with power than with the wellbeing of the average Pakistani. Her program remained one of old-school patronage, not increased productivity or social decency.

Educated in expensive Western schools, she permitted Pakistan's feeble education system to rot - opening the door to Islamists and their religious schools.

During her years as prime minister, Pakistan went backward, not forward. Her husband looted shamelessly and ended up fleeing the country, pursued by the courts. The Islamist threat - which she artfully played both ways - spread like cancer.
Peters is more generous in noting that Bhutto's death might be a real catalyst for progressive change in Pakistan. Other than that, I have serious disagreements with his analysis.

Bhutto certainly enjoyed her privilege and power (
as the New York Times' obituary notes), but the former prime minister also genuinely fought for the improvement of Pakistani lives. As Husain Haqqani noted in today's Wall Street Journal:

In 1988, at the age of 35, Bhutto became the youngest prime minister in Pakistan's troubled history, and the first woman to lead a Muslim nation in the modern age. For her supporters, she stood for women's empowerment, human rights and mass education. Her detractors accused her of many things, from corruption to being too close to the U.S.

During her second tenure as prime minister, Pakistan became one of the 10 emerging capital markets of the world. The World Health Organization praised government efforts in the field of health. Rampant narcotics problems were tackled and several drug barons arrested. Bhutto increased government spending on education and 46,000 new schools were built.

Thousands of teachers were recruited with the understanding that a secular education, covering multiple study areas (particularly technical and scientific education), would improve the lives of Pakistanis and create job opportunities critical to self-empowerment. But Pakistan's political turbulence, and her constant battle with the country's security establishment, never allowed her to take credit for these achievements.

For years, her image was tarnished by critics who alleged that she did not deliver on her promise. During the early days after Mr. Musharraf's decision to support the U.S.-led war against terrorism in the aftermath of 9/11, conventional wisdom in Washington wrote her off. But Pakistan's constant drift into extremism, and Mr. Musharraf's inability to win Pakistani hearts and minds, changed that.
In fact, as Michael Goldfarb notes, Peters' analysis is an outlier. For example, Christopher Hitchens recalls Bhutto as extraordinarily courageous:

The sternest critic of Benazir Bhutto would not have been able to deny that she possessed an extraordinary degree of physical courage. When her father was lying in prison under sentence of death from Pakistan's military dictatorship in 1979, and other members of her family were trying to escape the country, she boldly flew back in. Her subsequent confrontation with the brutal Gen. Zia-ul-Haq cost her five years of her life, spent in prison. She seemed merely to disdain the experience, as she did the vicious little man who had inflicted it upon her.
And while I'm no fan of Arianna Huffington, I have to admire the kinds words she wrote in honor of Bhutto:

She was fearlessness epitomized. Many will debate her political successes and failures, her personal probity in public office, the charges of corruption against her and of course the national security implications of her death, but for now I'm just filled with a profound sadness about the end of a woman that was always brimming with life.
I have to agree with Goldfarb on this one:

I'm struck by how many Americans have offered these kind of personal anecdotes as a testament to Bhutto's character. She had written a diary at Slate, a blog at the Huffington Post, and apparently kept a correspondence with Mark Siegel--and this is the tip of the iceberg I'm sure. Christopher Hitchens offers a more even account, but he's no less troubled by her death (he, too, had personal history with Bhutto). Of course, not everyone is sad to see her go, but for all her faults, she was right on what mattered most--she was an ally in the war against Islamic extremism.
Also, be sure to check this new video, with footage of the last seconds of Bhutto's life:

As I read more about Bhutto, I'm convinced that my words yesterday were on target. I wrote:

Sometimes there's an individual connection to world leaders and events that requires some detachment and perspective. I do know that Bhutto's death will bring change to South Asia, and not for the better. We can be sure that Bhutto killers - radical Islamists acting independently, or with the green light from Pakistan's security service, the ISI - will view the attack as a successful engagement in the fight to overturn American influence in the region, to destabilize the Pakistani regime, and to pave the way for religious fundamentalists to come to power.
The Wall Street Journal lays out the specifics of such concerns in more detail:

For decades, the U.S. has watched warily as Pakistan has tangled with India, developed nuclear weapons and fostered alliances with militant Islamist fighters.

Now, the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto is stoking fears both of new unrest in her country and of ripple effects in the region as extremist groups are emboldened by the demise of a secular, modern Muslim politician.

Pakistan has been on the front lines of the Bush administration's war on terror since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Washington insisted that Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf sever ties to the Taliban movement in Afghanistan, which harbored Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders. Pakistan also faced pressure to arrest and imprison militant Islamic activists and fight insurgents spilling over from Afghanistan.

But Pakistan has been a leaky bulwark against radicalism, creating constant friction with the U.S. as the war on terror drifts into its seventh year. Western regions of Pakistan, often controlled by local tribes, are viewed as sanctuaries for newly minted militant groups as well as vestiges of the Taliban and al Qaeda -- and perhaps Mr. bin Laden himself. Investigators deconstructing recent al Qaeda plots in Europe and the Middle East often find their roots stretching back to Pakistan.

Some U.S. intelligence analysts fear Ms. Bhutto's assassination could be part of a broader al Qaeda and Taliban offensive against Pakistan's secular leadership, focused on spreading militant influence inside the country. Success in this endeavor would pose a direct threat to the U.S. and the broader Western world.

"The global reverberations of yesterday's attacks underscore the interdependency between the United States and Pakistan," said Henry A. Crumpton, a former State Department counterterrorism chief and top Central Intelligence Agency official who led U.S. intelligence operations in Afghanistan in 2002. "The U.S. interests there are so important, whether it's the issue of nuclear weapons, the issue of counterterrorism or the issue of Pakistan-India relations."

Pakistan is the sole Islamic nation possessing a nuclear arsenal. The Bush administration has spent nearly $11 billion on aid and other programs in Pakistan since 9/11. The money has supported the nation's fight against al Qaeda. It has also been used to help safeguard Islamabad's atomic weapons.

Some analysts described fears of the "demonstration effect" of Ms. Bhutto's killing on Islamist militants seeking power through the gun in Central and South Asia, as well as other Muslim nations. The threat of violence could diminish the ranks of those willing to cooperate with the U.S.

"The whole currency of political assassination could rise" as a result of Ms. Bhutto's death, said Robert Grenier, who served as the CIA's Islamabad station chief from 1999 to 2002. "The threat could have the intended intimidating impact and make it harder for any other figures to stand up" against extremism in Pakistan or elsewhere.

See more commentary and analysis on Pakistan's crisis at Memeorandum.