Watching the coverage yesterday of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, it might be easy to forget that this was, first and foremost, something that happened to Pakistan and its people. From CNN to Fox News to MSNBC, the overwhelming majority of the focus centered on how the former prime minister's death would affect the United States and American interests. Perhaps the crassest reaction, which occurred within minutes of the first terrible reports from Rawalpindi, involved speculation about the impact of the killing on the standing of the U.S. presidential candidates just one week before the Iowa caucuses.
Pakistan is a complicated place, and Benazir Bhutto was a complicated woman. Daughter of her country's most important and controversial leader of the 1970s, she took control of her father's political party (sometimes in exile) after the elder Bhutto's 1979 execution on charges of plotting the killing of a political opponent. She eventually won election twice as prime minister in her own right, being dismissed each time due to corruption charges. Those charges, while vigorously disputed by Ms. Bhutto, extended well beyond Pakistan, with substantial evidence coming from several European countries, including Switzerland.
The American media, not exactly masters of nuance, tend to paint in broad, childlike strokes, assigning each subject a black or white hat. Even before her death, and especially now, Ms. Bhutto was treated as a heroic figure, the first woman leader of a Muslim country and an individual of towering personal courage. She was certainly that, returning this past year to the land that had killed her father—and quite possibly had a hand in the deaths of two of her brothers—and remaining after an October assassination attempt and a brief period of house arrest. Still, she was neither the Mahatma Gandhi nor the George Washington of Pakistan, and it will now remain forever unclear exactly what her restoration as prime minister might have meant to her country.
What is known is that the current Pakistani leader, Pervez Musharraf, is a shadowy figure with little taste for democracy. His government's relationship with al Qaeda, at least prior to 9/11, has been murky, and it was during his presidency that Dr. A.Q. Khan, the country's leading nuclear scientist, apparently engaged in a highly profitable sideline advancing nuclear proliferation around the world. Musharraf, a military strongman of shifting allegiances, seems a throwback to an earlier Cold War era in which the U.S. government gave its backing to all sorts of unsavory characters in sometimes careless pursuit of broader objectives.
Nobody has to contact CSI to recognize that there are really only two major suspects in the Bhutto assassination. One, of course, is the Pakistani government. Benazir Bhutto's return to her native land was strongly encouraged by the United States, which wanted a more reliable and democratic ally as prime minister to counterbalance Musharraf's problematic presidency. Since Ms. Bhutto's arrival in October, 2007, Musharraf has postponed elections, declared martial law, and placed his rival under house arrest. Each of these actions was reversed under strong American pressure, but it is nevertheless clear that the elimination of Ms. Bhutto would be very much in the Musharraf government's interests.
The other suspect—and the one that has been receiving far more attention from the U.S. media—is al Qaeda. Once again, the motivation is undeniable. Osama bin Laden's outfit has of late been on a bit of a losing streak, having seen its alliances with Sunni leaders in Iraq crumble. While it is nonsense to say that the Americans are now winning the Iraq war—victory involves more than just the cessation of the daily deaths of U.S. soldiers—it is clear that al Qaeda is losing. The murder of Benazir Bhutto would have been a spectacular calling card as well as a devastating blow to the Bush administration's aspirations for Pakistan.
Regardless of the truth, it seems increasingly clear that al Qaeda will receive credit for this terrible crime. The terrorist theory plays into both the American and Pakistani governments' preferred narrative. If Musharraf or his people are responsible for Ms. Bhutto's death, not only does he become the Ferdinand Marcos of his own country, he also creates an untenable situation in Washington. Even the Bushies would be unable to sustain public and congressional support for Musharraf if it turned out that his government bore responsibility for yesterday's events. The problem, however, is that the U.S. administration is convinced that the alternatives to their strongman, including a possible victory by Islamic extremists, are far worse.
This is, unfortunately, much more than a story about lying with dogs and waking up with fleas. It is, instead, a dilemma caused directly by the breathtaking ignorance and arrogance of the Bush administration's foreign policy. That is not to say that the American government is responsible for Benazir Bhutto's death. Her ambitions would likely have eventually led her back to Pakistan with or without U.S. help, and Pakistani leaders have a long history of dying of other than natural causes.
The sequence of events, however, and particularly the Bush administration's desperate dependence on Musharraf are a direct byproduct of the decision to engage in a gratuitous war in Iraq before completing the assignment of neutralizing al Qaeda and nursing Afghanistan back to some form of health and normalcy. The critical importance of Pakistan to the United States stems in large part from its border with Afghanistan and its ability to provide a safe haven to bin Laden and other members of al Qaeda. Dick Cheney's obsession with Saddam Hussein and his grand strategy to dominate the Islamic world have now yielded another foreign policy disaster that will haunt, at the very least, the next presidential administration.
With the loss of Benazir Bhutto, Pervez Musharraf now holds all the cards. We will almost certainly never learn whether his government, either by design or by malign neglect, was involved in the Bhutto assassination. Free of his most formidable rival, the Pakistani president is virtually assured of winning elections that will receive loud and embarrassing approval from Washington. Meanwhile, the Muslim world will continue to seethe and Pakistan, unlike Saddam's Iraq a real nuclear power, will continue its oversized and ominous presence on the world stage.