Chaos in Pakistan, Confusion in Iowa and NH

Reports that the Pakistani government prevented an autopsy from being performed on the corpse of Benazir Bhutto's corpse and seized medical records pertaining to her treatment at the hospital to which she had been brought cast further doubt on the official story that she had died from the effects of banging her head on a sunroof closure lever. CNN describes the finger-pointing over who was responsible for the lack of an autopsy.

Rawalpindi's police chief stopped doctors at the hospital where Benazir Bhutto died from conducting an autopsy, according to a lawyer on the hospital's board.

It was a violation of Pakistani criminal law and prevented a medical conclusion about what killed the former prime minister, said Athar Minallah, who serves on the board that manages Rawalpindi General Hospital.

However, the police chief involved, Aziz Saud, told CNN that he suggested an autopsy be done, but that Bhutto's husband objected.

And now, according to the Press Trust of India, the Pakistani government is recanting its assertion she died from a concussion. The unconvincing way in which the investigation into the Bhutto assassination has been handled has given rise to speculation the Pakistani government -- or parts of it -- was actually behind her death. Hillary Clinton recently declared that while "there are those saying that al-Qaida did it. Others are saying it looked like it was an inside job - remember Rawalpindi is a garrison city". After initially claiming responsibility for her death, there are now reports that al-Qaeda is absolving itself from the murder. The left-wing Independent is quoting sources in Bhutto's party saying she had "damning evidence that revealed the involvement of a shadowy Pakistani intelligence agency in a plan to rig the country's upcoming elections".

The commentary on events in Pakistan is running thick and fast. Some of it is off the cuff. For example, Thomas Houlahan of the Middle East Times noticed Hillary Clinton mistakenly believed Benazir Bhutto to be running against Pervez Musharraf in the scheduled elections.

Referring to a possible delay in the elections, Sen. Clinton said: "I think it will be very difficult to have a real election. You know, Nawaz Sharif (leader of the PML-N, an opposition party) has said he's not going to compete. The PPP is in disarray with Benazir's assassination. He (President Pervez Musharraf) could be the only person on the ballot. I don't think that's a real election."

And then it hit me:

Sen. Clinton really didn't know that the upcoming elections were for individual seats in Pakistan's parliament. She actually believed that Bhutto, Nawaz and Musharraf would be facing off as individual candidates for leadership of the country in the upcoming elections.

Sen. Clinton didn't know that Nawaz Sharif isn't allowed to run for office in Pakistan because of a felony conviction. She didn't know that President Musharraf won't be on the ballot because he's already been elected.

In fairness to Hillary, the Pakistan crisis has forced the candidates to deal with the problems in Southwest Asia at a level they were ill-prepared for. Up until the Bhutto assassination it was possible to deal with Pakistan in generalities. Barack Obama's could extemporize on the question whether he would use nuclear weapons in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

"I think it would be a profound mistake for us to use nuclear weapons in any circumstance," he said, pausing before he added, "involving civilians." But then he quickly said: "Let me scratch that. There's been no discussion of nuclear weapons. That's not on the table."

But as Hillary's confusion about who was actually running for election now illustrates, things have now come down to cases. "Let me scratch that" is not an option in specific cases. It is now upon the details that key decisions now hinge. Events are conspiring to force Washington to make particular judgments; back specific courses of action; throw their support behind individual persons with an urgency it is unprepared for. And the menu of actual actions to take, candidates to back, etc are laid out like a row of buttons in a cheap gambling arcade. Should one back Bhutto's husband, widely perceived as corrupt, now that he has inherited Benazir's party mantle? Follow the course of Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister with Islamist connections and who presided over the atom-bomb tests, and is now calling for an election boycott? Or heed Bill Richardson, who wants President Bush to use pressure to force Musharraf from power?

Do we judge that al-Qaeda killed Bhutto? Or accuse Musharraf of letting her die? Did she die from a bullet or from a concussion? The list of questions to which there are no consensus answers goes on.

In situations where it is unclear which insistently blinking button to push the correct approach is often not to push any of them; but instead to attempt to bring the system into some kind of stability following the rule of always resolving the most important issue first. After that the lesser problems can be solved in a stepwise way until the situation is stabilized. For Pakistan the most important issue that must be resolved is the question of who is in charge. With Musharraf's legitimacy weakened, part of the perceived authority in that country has unintentionally shifted from Islamabad to Washington DC.

The turmoil in Pakistan now means that complete sovereign control has slipped from the hands of President Musharraf. What happens now in that country will be the outcome of a bargain between Pakistani political forces and Washington. Like a ship whose helm is being jointly turned by two men on a bridge neither can completely steer without the aid of the other.

To solve the first order question -- who is in charge -- the men at the helm must come to an understanding of which course to steer. In this negotiation it will help if Washington pulls together. Bipartisan political unity will maximize Washington's leverage in the coming tug-of-war. With any luck it will result in a consensus about the direction events should take. Right now the ship is a plaything of the waves. The most important issue to resolve is to create a predominance in the way the ship is steered.

Only after a predominance is established will it be possible to decide other things. Should the elections continue? Who should be punished from Bhutto's death? What is the roadmap for Pakistan? Once upon a time foreign policy could be conducted on a bipartisan basis. It can be again.

Since Bhutto's death John Edwards has called Musharraf to give him advice; Obama has blamed Hillary for Benazir's death; Huckabee apologized for whatever he wanted to apologize to Pakistan for; Bill Richardson called for a regime change; and President Bush did not very much. It was a depressing scene. There is chaos in Pakistan. But maybe some semblance of order can still be found on the Potomac.

Richard Fernandez is PJM Sydney editor; he also writes at the Belmont Club.