Saturday, December 29, 2007

Get Me Rewrite!

Aside from the obvious insensitivity, there is another reason why only fools speculate about the domestic significance of a foreign tragedy in its immediate aftermath. That would be the enormous likelihood of getting it all embarrassingly wrong.

In this case, the fools, known as political pundits, have dominated the airwaves in the forty-eight hours since the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. They have assured us in tones of unshakable confidence that the current unrest in Pakistan will benefit Hillary Clinton, Rudy Giuliani, and John McCain, the three candidates with the greatest degree of foreign policy experience. They have insisted that Iowans and New Hampshirites, the only people in the republic who currently matter, are now tasked with reassessing the presidential race for what must be at least the tenth time in the last six months.

First, please allow me to digress. Precisely what foreign policy experience do the two senators and the former mayor possess? Clinton traveled the globe at the behest of her husband; this, in itself, makes her no more qualified to lead the world than an average contestant on "The Amazing Race". We now know that the junior senator from New York did not even have a security clearance during Bill's administration. This is not, in itself, disqualifying, unless one wishes to argue that the senator earned her foreign policy chops during the 1990s.

McCain, like Clinton, sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and has done so for a number of years. In that capacity, he has watched other people—presidents—make foreign policy decisions, he has held a security clearance, and he has participated in countless hearings. So have Barbara Boxer and Norm Coleman, neither of whom is regarded as an international affairs guru. Implicitly, it is sometimes suggested that his experience as a Vietnam POW also adds to McCain's credibility on these issues, but that is, if you take even a moment to think about it, preposterous.

As for Rudy Giuliani, how on Earth does being mayor of New York City on September 11, 2001, substitute for, among other things, knowledge, information, and good judgment? By that reasoning, shouldn't we find out who the mayor of Shanksville, Pennsylvania, was on that terrible day and nominate him or her for vice president? Being the victim of a crime does not make you a criminologist.

I'm being a little hard on Hillary Clinton and John McCain. They have in fact acquired some foreign policy expertise over the years. I simply doubt that even a wealth of information, or anything else for that matter, truly prepares one for the demands of being Commander in Chief. Henry Kissinger's encyclopedic understanding of world diplomacy, for example, brought us (indirectly) Pol Pot and (directly) Augusto Pinochet. Still, the idea that Rudolph ("Let's Put the Emergency Command Headquarters in the World Trade Center") Giuliani is better prepared to lead a superpower than, say, the average graduate student in international relations, should evoke uncontrollable laughter from anyone fit to be called a journalist. That is does not is both telling and frightening.

Anyhow, end of digression.

Back to the tragic case of Benazir Bhutto and the pundits who raced one another to the Green Rooms upon news of her death. As if talking about kindergartners, they speculated that the terrible events in Pakistan would remind the American people that the world is a mean and scary place (as if we don't re-learn that on every trip through an airport). Ms. Bhutto was, nearly all of them insisted, the victim of al Qaeda, the Taliban, or some other group of, to use Lou Dobbs' trifecta of hysteria, "radical Islamic extremists". Dutifully quaking in our penny loafers, we would now turn our attention toward those candidates most likely to keep us safe, which Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee obviously cannot do because they are men of such appalling ignorance that they probably thought Bhutto was the guy who used to beat up Popeye. Or something like that.

Well, Thursday's truth sometimes becomes Friday's retraction, and, while we're not quite there yet, the simple narrative is already unraveling. Showing the kind of ham-handedness that we normally associate only with Dick Cheney, the Musharraf government has, in less than half a week, already offered three different causes of death for the Pakistani president's leading rival. First, she was killed by bullets, then by shrapnel, and finally, by (and under other, less awful circumstances this would be funny) bumping her head on her car's sunroof. Really hard, apparently. People have died in such a manner, of course, but usually not simultaneous to the moment that they have also been the target of gunfire and a suicide bomb. But, you know, maybe she was just really, really unlucky.

Ms. Bhutto, however, apparently didn't believe in luck, so she dictated a message, to be released upon her untimely death, indicating her belief that the Musharraf government would bear responsibility for any successful attempt on her life. A friend of the martyred former prime minister passed this message on to CNN's Wolf Blitzer, which may be the first time Wolf broke a story without first dropping it on the pavement. The coincidence of Bhutto's own words with the slippery and ever-changing reports coming from the Pakistani government made any further discussion of al Qaeda's or the Taliban's role in the assassination immediately suspect. It remains possible, of course, that these groups may have committed the deed, but the question now concerns the extent to which Musharraf allowed it to happen through insufficient security, or worse.

I, too, am guilty of premature speculation (geez, maybe I should re-phrase that). Yesterday, I suggested that the Bush and Musharraf governments would concur on the terrorists-killed-Bhutto narrative, and that Pakistan's elections would go on as scheduled. This may still occur, but it is clear that Musharraf's unforeseen ineptitude has imperiled not only the "democratic" process in his country, but also the last remaining legitimacy of his regime. These are disquieting times in the Muslim world's only nuclear power.

Returning to the supposed implications of the assassination for America's coming elections, we can no longer be so sure that the watchword will be stability and that a frightened populace will be looking for Big Daddy or Big Mommy. Indeed, given this additional evidence of the failure of our foreign policy leadership, it might turn out that the agents of change (ours, not theirs) could be back in the ascendancy. Paging Obama and Huck: Mr. DeMille may be ready for your close-up after all.

Seriously, though (and this is a very serious situation), we still have no idea what will transpire over the next several days in Pakistan. Thus, it is futile and likely misleading to assume we have any sense of how or even whether the Pakistani crisis will affect the upcoming caucuses and primaries. As usual, our pundits speak with great authority, while actually providing little that is of value.

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