Atlantic blogger Matthew Yglesias complains that “A remarkable quantity of dumb stuff has been said since Benazir Bhutto’s death” and cites, in particular, this Ipecac Syrup from Washington Post columnist David Ignatius (“”She believed in democracy, freedom and openness - not as slogans but as a way of life. She wasn’t perfect; the corruption charges that enveloped her second term as prime minister were all too real. But she remained the most potent Pakistani voice for liberalism, tolerance and change.”) Whatever else was or was not true about Bhutto, it’s not her guts that are admirable so much as her chutzpah. Think Hillary Clinton, but even more power-mad, scandal-laden - and unbridled by the checks and balances of the U.S. Constitution.
While her assassination has been described by editorial writers as “a blow” to democracy in Pakistan, Bhutto was no more a champion of democracy than the country’s current president, Pervez Musharraf. She was a Third World-class champion at corruption, one of the most rapacious leaders in her country’s history; a socialist who nonetheless believed that some animals are more equal than others; and not above harnessing the seething resentment of her followers to stage her own violent coup.
In a WaPo op-ed last month, Pakistani-born Salman Ahmad makes the case that the choice between Musharraf and Bhutto is a false one:
Benazir Bhutto is no savior. The queen of hypocrisy, she has managed to hypnotize Western liberals with her claim to represent progressive elements in the Muslim world. Bhutto is a charlatan. How can she call herself a democrat while also appointing herself head of the Pakistan People’s Party for life? Her time as prime minister brought staggering levels of corruption and graft. Bhutto’s niece and sister-in-law accuse her of conspiring to murder her own brother, Murtaza, who challenged her power during her second term. She continues to see Pakistan as her personal feudal fiefdom to be plundered. A false prophet of democracy, she threatens to bring back the rule of the gangster rather than the rule of law.
In The New York Times blog, The Lede, Steven R. Weisman, the paper’s New Delhi bureau chief in the mid-1980s, writes: “Benazir not only understood that Pakistan was a chaotic country, she often seemed almost to court chaos as an ally. I believe that, in effect, was her strategy in her current return.” Weisman says that a political ally of hers admitted that she hoped that once she returned to Pakistan, “the people would rise up to support her, there would be violence, and the army would step in and remove President Musharraf for her and bring her into power, perhaps in tandem with another general.” Elections were desirable – as long as the outcome was that she returned to power.
This blog post by radio talk show host Michael Medved gives a pithy summation of Bhutto’s career and takes pundits and journalists to task for making her out to be a Pakistani Joan of Arc:
The instant canonization of Benazir Bhutto ought to embarrass the pundits and journalists who now talk only of her saintly aspects - featuring glamorous photos or video from twenty years ago showing the lady at the peak of her stunning beauty. As a matter of fact, her two previous terms as Prime Minister both ended in failure, embarrassment and rejection, along with widespread and credible charges of corruption. It’s natural to remember her best characteristics after her sudden death, and compared to General Musharaf or her Islamist rival Nawaz Sharif she may indeed look enlightened, even heroic, but the posthumous praise on cable news networks sounds embarrassingly overwrought.
Commenting on an op-ed piece she authored for The New York Times after Musharraf declared martial law, WaPo columnist Charles Krauthammer noted that the Harvard-educated, media-savvy Bhutto “knows just how to appeal to America. … she quoted President Bush back to himself: “All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: The United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.”
Krauthammer added that Bhutto “caught Bush’s democratic messianism at its apogee, the same inaugural address in which he set ‘the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.’” In other words, she played Bush like a violin – using his naiveté as a means to an end. That end being her reinstallation as Pakistan’s head by any means necessary.
Finally Weisman suggests that Bhutto may not have been the scourge of Islamofascist terrorists that some believe based solely on reading her slick op-ed pieces in U.S. newspapers: “[She] also used to deny knowing anything about Pakistan’s support of the fundamentalist Taliban group in Afghanistan while she was prime minister, or its plans to make a nuclear weapon. ‘She could be steely in denying the obvious.’”
Addendum: Since this article was posted, Bhutto’s 19-year-old son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari - who was imprisoned eight years for corruption – have succeeded her as co-chairman of the PPP, in accordance with her wishes. The party also decided to contest the elections, now postponed until February. If the PPP wins, senior party official Amin Fahim will assume the post. The Wall Street Journal (subscription required) quotes political analyst Abdul Khalique Junejo, who explains that the PPP was forced to look to Bhutto’s closest relatives to run the show after her assassination, because “[t]he party has no institutions - it was a one-woman show.”
The elder Zardari wasted no time asserting control of the family franchise, reportsThe Times:
It is clear that Mr. Zardari is going to be regent while his son learns the ropes. Colleagues and friends of the family say Ms. Bhutto did not intend for her son, a student at Oxford, to take on such a demanding political role so soon. …
He stressed that he would not be running for prime minister, saying that the longtime deputy leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party, Makhdoom Amin Fahim, was the party’s candidate.
Yet a senior member of the party, Khawaja Tariq Rahim, predicted that Mr. Zardari would be the kingmaker - consolidating his hold on the party by creating his own clique of advisers - and that some of those close to Ms. Bhutto would fade away.
And so when the heir to the throne finishes his studies, he will, naturally, become king. Long live democracy, Benazir Bhutto-style.