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Being Benazir Bhutto

Why the U.S. can’t depend on her in the long-term

In recent days, the Bush administration has slowly edged away from its outright support for Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. “We don’t want to be seen to be looking, but we want to make sure we talk to a wide variety of people,” one US official told the Washington Post this week. “We encourage moderate political forces in Pakistan to work together,” echoed State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.

The most visible of those “moderate political forces,” of course, is former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, whom Washington desperately hopes can help Musharraf stabilize the country, possibly as prime minister with Musharraf remaining president. Bhutto, who enjoys an over 60 percent popularity rating in Pakistan in a recent poll, has strengthened her credentials as a moderate democrat over the last week and a half by relentlessly attacking Musharraf’s decision to impose a state of emergency and by calling for him to resign. And, indeed, Bhutto would be a better solution than military rule because she stands for some of the best historical values of Pakistani democracy. Unfortunately, she stands for some of the worst, too.

Since being founded in 1947 by Mohammed Jinnah, a man who was known to enjoy a nice tipple, Pakistan has boasted politicians who have been schooled in British law and who have next to nothing in common with the firebrand clerics of today’s Northwest Frontier province. Jinnah himself vowed that Pakistan would protect equal rights, civil society, and religious tolerance--and prominent civilian Pakistani leaders have generally upheld these values. It’s a key reason why the country has sustained some of the noisiest media outlets and powerful lawyers’ groups in South Asia. By contrast, it was a Pakistani military leader, Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, who set the country on the path toward Islamic radicalism in the late 1970s and 1980s, strengthening the power of Islamic courts and supporting greater religious instruction across the country. And it was Musharraf, another man in uniform, who inked a deal with an alliance of radical groups, and on whose watch Islamic parties have managed to win a provincial government for the first time.

In her very person, the Oxford-educated Benazir Bhutto, daughter of a prime minister, embodies these values--and many of her actions have supported that image. Throughout the 1980s, Bhutto led the protest movement against the Zia dictatorship, which murdered her father, and she has since stood defiant in the face of radicals, openly backing the global war on terrorism, which is hardly popular in her country, and calling for Pakistan to cut its links to the Taliban all the way back in 1998. She speaks out against Islamic extremism in seemingly every opportunity. In an editorial she wrote before returning to the country this fall, Bhutto proclaimed, “The battle between extremism and moderation is the underlying battle for the very soul of Pakistan. Yet moderation can prevail against the extremists only if democracy flourishes.”  

But because she’s a creature of the past, she also embodies Pakistan’s worst, most embedded vices. Since independence, the country’s politics have been run by dynasties, like the Bhutto family, who also tend to be the country’s feudal landowners. And like feudal lords, they treat democracy as a kind of imperial system, in which they provide voters with minor spoils--some money on Election Day, or infrastructure projects--and once in power, act like they own the state. When she was prime minister between 1988 and 1990 and again between 1993 and 1996, Bhutto was no different: She presided over massive graft scandals and watched her husband allegedly build an empire on foreign investment contracts.

As a result, if Bhutto were to assume power again, it should only be seen as a short-term solution--for her country and for the United States. She could quickly accomplish a lot. With her past experience running the country and dealing with the U.S. and Britain, she’d likely preside over a smooth transition and continue the close intelligence and military relationship that has been built since 9/11. Moreover, Islamic parties in Afghanistan, which have thrived under the tacit support of Musharraf, would be exposed as a tiny minority, and militants on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border could face real heat--not just empty bluster-- from Islamabad. Finally, given the power of lawyers in her party, and her need to differentiate herself from Musharraf, you can expect Pakistan’s online, broadcast, and print media to flourish, while its judicial system regains some semblance of order.

But Bhutto is not the person to create the kind of democracy that would make Pakistan a more reliable ally in the long-term. Her traditional political style hasn’t ingratiated her to many educated Pakistani students, a vital group in an unusually young population--in a 2005 survey, 71 million of the country’s roughly 160 million people were under 18. Many of these students, the people who might break the country out of its feudal landlock, have turned instead to new political forces like Imran Khan, a magnetic former cricketer turned politician.

The former prime minister also does not seem to have learned much from her past travails. All the way through Musharraf’s term, she has continued to run her party, the Pakistan People’s Party, like a landlord or a queen, refusing to allow new blood and ideas to flourish. As the New York Times noted in a recent profile of Bhutto, she has appointed herself head of the party for life and has “frozen out” Aitzaz Ahsan, another leading member of her party who has led the lawyers’ protests against General Musharraf.

With so few Pakistan experts left in the administration, the U.S. might choose to rely solely on Bhutto, just as it did with Musharraf. That would be a mistake. Washington needs to build a relationship with a broader cross-sector of Pakistanis, like the students and lawyers who led protests while Bhutto was still in exile. Without that, America, just like average Pakistanis, will remain locked into a Sophie’s choice between generals and feudocrats.  

Joshua Kurlantzick is a special correspondent for The New Republic.

By Joshua Kurlantzick