The Duck of Minerva

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The Bhutto Connection


January 2, 2008

I’ve been pondering the assassination of former (and potentially future) Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto for a few days and have been struggling with what I might say about it. It was this column by Anne Applebaum that provided the hook to crystallize a few thoughts.

If you read the coverage of Bhutto’s death, particularly in the Washington Post, you notice a strong movement to lionize her and her legacy. Applebaum pointed this out (with helpful links) in a column that appeared in both Slate and the Post:

It would also be hard to think of a person in the Islamic world who could possibly have inspired more affectionate and well-informed obituaries. An extraordinarily high percentage of the world’s English-speaking pundits appear to have known Bhutto at Harvard, to have encountered her at Oxford, or to have interviewed her, at some length, when in Karachi or Rawalpindi. If one only read the encomiums to her bravery and her zest for politics over the past week, it would have been difficult, without knowing anything else about her, to understand why such a person should have been so hated by so many of her own countrymen.

You don’t have to dig very deep to see what’s going on. Bhutto’s father was very smart to send her to Harvard at 16, where she got the very best Harvard has to offer—connections to the future elite of American society.
The NY Times noted:

Ms. Bhutto, the Pakistani opposition leader and two-time prime minister, who was assassinated in Rawalpindi on Thursday as she campaigned for the office a third time, had a more extensive network of powerful friends in the capital’s political and media elite than almost any other foreign leader. Over the years, she scrupulously cultivated those friends, many from her days at Harvard and Oxford. She was rewarded when her connections — at the White House, in Congress and within the foreign policy establishment — helped propel her into power in Pakistan….

Ms. Bhutto… quickly befriended not only [Peter W.] Galbraith but E. J. Dionne and Michael Kinsley, now both columnists for The Post, and Walter Isaacson, the president of the Aspen Institute and a former managing editor of Time….

Ms. Bhutto’s first important trip to Washington was in the spring of 1984, when Mr. Galbraith, then a Democratic staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, acted as her host and tutor….

Her goal in Washington was to persuade conservative Reagan administration officials that they would be better off with her in power. It was not going to be easy: Ms. Bhutto’s father was known for his fiery anti-Western rhetoric, and she had marched against the Vietnam War at Harvard. “What she was up against was her reputation of being this anti-American radical,” Mr. Galbraith said. “So we spent a lot of time talking about what messages she needed to convey.” …

On that same trip, Mr. Galbraith introduced Ms. Bhutto to Mark Siegel, a political operative who had been executive director of the Democratic National Committee. Mr. Siegel was taken with Ms. Bhutto and supported her cause. He became a lobbyist for the government of Pakistan when Ms. Bhutto was in power. Most recently he was her collaborator on a book scheduled for publication in 2008.

In short, Bhutto crafted and scrupulously maintained a large and powerful network of friends and supporters in Washington. Applebaum notes the:

…reasons why there might be a division between Western and domestic feelings about certain politicians, particularly when that politician is associated with domestic issues that we either don’t know about, don’t care about, or don’t understand. Bhutto, despite her eloquent and sincere defense of democracy on the pages of the New York Times, was just as well known in Pakistan for the longstanding corruption charges against her and her husband, as well as for encouraging the birth and growth of the Taliban during her years as prime minister: Allegedly, she had hoped to make use of the fanatical group’s military success in Afghanistan as a tool in Pakistan’s longstanding struggle with India for regional dominance. To many Pakistanis, even those who didn’t want to see her murdered, these were not insignificant political errors, but horrendous, unforgivable, disqualifying blunders.

We didn’t know about these sides of Bhutto’s character, or didn’t remember them, or simply didn’t think them as significant as her democracy rhetoric…

And yet they are essential to Bhutto’s legacy and would have been important issues had she become prime minister. Her friend, Galbraith, paints these choices in a sympathetic way:

Benazir’s two abbreviated terms as prime minister (she was sacked twice) disappointed her countrymen and, I think, herself. In the years before her first election, we spent hours discussing her goals: a real democracy where the army took orders from elected leaders and otherwise stayed in the barracks; peace with India; a halt to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program; government spending on social needs, including girls’ education. She never accomplished any of this, but not for lack of trying.

After arriving in Karachi the day after the 1988 elections, we eventually got through the crowds to her newly built house in an upscale suburb. As we talked late into the night, she asked me to draft a detailed proposal for improved relations to be given to Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. At 3 in the morning, she copied the proposal into her own hand for me to deliver to Gandhi the next day. At a subsequent summit, the two leaders looked more like newlyweds than the rulers of countries that had fought three wars in the previous half-century. But then the Pakistani military stepped in, making it clear that, elected prime minister or not, she had no say on Kashmir or nuclear weapons — two crucial elements of any durable peace.

So Benazir well understood that, without bringing Pakistan’s military under civilian control, her country would never become a real democracy. That meant depriving the generals of their ability to use the threat of India to justify their outsized claims on the national budget and Pakistan’s political agenda. But in order to make peace with India (and to combat growing Islamist extremism after 9/11), she needed the military on her side. This balancing act drove her to contemplate a power-sharing deal with Gen. Pervez Musharraf, over fierce criticism from her own party. She hoped to create a “coalition of moderates” that would enable her to be prime minister in fact and not just in name…

Indeed, as far as the Bush Administration’s handling of Pakistan goes, it wasn’t a bad plan per se—to encourage the development of a secular, pro-US political force outside of Musharraf utilizing the tools of democracy. From the US point of view, its pretty hard to imagine a better alternative than Bhutto. Unfortunately, now we must.

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Dr. Peter Howard focuses on US foreign policy and international security. He studies how the implementation of foreign policy programs produces rule-based regional security regimes, conducting research in Estonia on NATO Expansion and US Military Exchange programs and South Korea on nuclear negotiations with North Korea.