Following Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, the myth-making is heading into overdrive — depicting the late Bhutto as having been a dependable friend to America, a voice of democracy and the face of salvation for Pakistan. I doubt that was ever true. There are many reasons to deplore her murder and mourn her death — but these do not necessarily imply that if she had survived and returned to power, that would have been the beginning of a better era for Pakistan, or a safer era for America. Bhutto was charismatic, determined, and courageous, and I don’t doubt that she wanted to end Islamic terrorism both inside Pakistan and emanating from it. But the gap between her words and her record was disturbing. When she actually held power as prime minister — not once, but twice — her brand of government, fraught with nepotism and corruption scandals, did not do much to help her country, or end the forces fueling terrorism (or stop Pakistan’s nuclear bomb program and network, for that matter). Rather, it was government of the kind that can give democracy a bad name.
Way back in 1988, I interviewed Benazir Bhutto in her hometown of Larkana, Pakistan — where her father is buried. She was then busy with the campaign that led to her first stint as prime minister, and there was plenty to admire in her determination and humor. She had just given birth to her oldest son, she was working 18-hour days, and in answer to a warmup question she confirmed to me with a laugh that she had indeed enjoyed a girlhood passion for romance novels — but had no time anymore for anything but newspapers.
Her politics, and priorities, however, were worrisome. Among her campaign slogans was “Socialism is Our Economy,” and her plans for Pakistan included the tired old brand of patronage and state-planning that had by then beggared the subcontinent for decades — and lends itself, anytime, anywhere, to corruption and the erosion of democratic rule. On questions about then-Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, the complex politics of Pakistan, and the Kabul-based Soviet-backed terrorist activities of her brothers (one already murdered at the time, the other killed since) she ducked and weaved in ways that left me worried enough to write at the time: “Ms. Bhutto leaves it far from clear that a new Bhutto administration would bring better times for Pakistan and its allies.”
It is possible that this third time around, Benazir Bhutto might have risen to the job. That is now moot. In the wake of this hideous assassination the questions facing those who believed in her, and those more skeptical, have become the same. What now?
For Pakistan, there are no simple answers — what was already a volatile and highly dangerous scene has become even less predictable. But there is one glaring message wrapped up in almost every piece of commentary on Bhutto’s murder, and it is this. What happens in the politics of Pakistan today is enormously important to the wider world because Pakistan is a country infested with terrrorists and armed with nuclear weapons. Those bombs are quite a prize for anyone who might seize power. Thus does America now walk a tightrope in its dealings with Pakistan.
Meanwhile, we have the flip side of this horrifying arrangement right next door to Pakistan, in Iran — which already has the kind of terror-dedicated government we fear Pakistan might get. Tehran’s regime is busy providing itself with everything needed to make nuclear weapons. And thanks to America’s latest National Intelligence Estimate, with its myopic conclusions, bizarre wording and patently political agenda, the Bush administration seems to have simply scrapped any serious intention of coming between Iran’s mullahs and the bomb.
That is a terrible mistake. And while we deplore the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, and brace for the aftershocks in Pakistan, and recite the reasons why it matters so much, the deeper message we ought to be taking from all this is that Pakistan has so far been a cakewalk compared to what we will be dealing with if Iran gets the bomb.