December 29, 2007 [LINK / comment]

The death of Benazir Bhutto

Pakistan today is going through the same kind of anguish and turmoil that the United States experienced in April 1968, when Martin Luther King was assassinated. The sudden loss of a beloved, devoted leader has left the people in a state of deep despair, and anything could happen. Not unlike that tragic moment, the news on Wednesday morning that Benazir Bhutto had been killed in a suicide bomb attack following a campaign rally in Rawalpindi was shocking but not totally unexpected. It reminds us that there are many awful possibilities we don't like to think about. Life as we know it is far more precious than we realize. Details about the wretched act are still coming to light as the investigation begins; it's always amazing how much confusion there is about something that happens in broad daylight with hundreds of witnesses. The Washington Post has a complete biographical background on Ms. Bhutto.

Benazir Bhutto knew her life was in peril even before the first bomb attack upon her arrival in Pakistan in October, which led President Musharraf to declare emergency rule in November. But she returned home anyway, defying the terrorists. Such an expression of courage by a leader just might serve as the inspiration for a new generation of Pakistanis who are no doubt weary from decades of instability and slow growth compared to their big neighbor India. What's more, the cowardly murder of a woman will discredit the Islamofascist movement in the eyes of many Muslims who are attracted to extremism. Perhaps one of her legacies will be that there will be less hostility in Pakistan toward the United States, where she earned a college degree.

Bhutto became more friendly toward the United States in recent years, reflecting the emphasis on U.S. support for democratization in the Third World. Originally, however, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) which she led had a left-wing, populist, anti-imperialist ideology that gave voice to discontented elements in Pakistan. That was one reason for the frequent episodes of instability and military coups over the years. Her father, Ali Bhutto, founded the PPP and served as prime minister in the 1970s, but was hanged on corruption charges by the military regime in 1970. Benazir Bhutto also faced corruption charges on several occasions, often centered around her husband's business dealings; graft is quite common in Pakistan, unfortunately. On the plus side, the PPP has matured over the years, and is now more moderate than before.

Most analysts assume that this tragedy is a major setback for U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, but much depends on how the Pakistani people react. Will the main theme be mourning and paying respects to Bhutto for her career as political leader, or will such sentiments be drowned out by cries for revenge? Will the elections scheduled for January be postponed to give the PPP time to choose a new leader? Will the other main civilian political leader, Nawaz Sharif (of the Pakistan Muslim League), take advantage of the situation? Will President Musharraf get serious about terrorism and crack down on the radical Islamic sympathizers within his military government, or will this episode deal a fatal blow to his credibility?

On the international level, tragic occasions such as this can sometimes serve to build bridges between hostile neighbors, as human sympathy supplants the routine rivalry for power. There is a strong parallel between the historic path of the Pakistan People's Party and the Congress Party in India, whose principle leader for many years, Indira Gandhi, was assassinated in 1984. Now that both countries have experienced the same kind of agony, perhaps there is a chance for improved relations. From Texas, President and Mrs. Bush expressed condolences and urged Pakistanis to honor Ms. Bhutto's memory by upholding democracy; see whitehouse.gov.

Nevertheless, the fact that Pakistan has a nuclear arsenal makes this situation especially dangerous for the whole planet. Can we really trust Musharraf? A few weeks ago there were reports that the U.S. military was preparing a contingency plan to take out Pakistan's nuclear weapons, but prospects for success are far from certain, and such a move could backfire horribly. The United States must apply a delicate mixture of firm pressure and respectful restraint toward Pakistan. We cannot tolerate a safe haven for Osama Bin Laden in the mountainous border with Afghanistan, but neither can we go so far as to provoke Pakistani nationalists. In few places around the world is there a sharper dilemma between the U.S. desire for more freedom and democracy verus our wish for more security and stability. For the next several months at least, we will have to pay close attention to developments in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and Turkey. Turmoil in each of those countries affects the whole region, and with energy supplies so tight right now, such turmoil affects the whole world.