Clearly, political assassinations are a bad thing. Equally clearly, political assassinations in a place like Pakistan seem to herald instability, and instability in Pakistan is frightening. That said, I think it’s worth being clear about something — from the perspective of someone who’s never spoken to Benazir Bhutto or any members of her inner circle, it seems like she was a really bad person and a terrible political leader. The main thing she did when in office was steal. A lot. Of money. From her extremely poor country. You have, basically, tens of millions of incredibly poor people in Pakistan. You have shitty infrastructure. You have a shitty school system. And you’re the Prime Minister. What do you do about it? You steal an incredible sum of money, while helping your associates likewise steal an incredible sum of money.
I’m not aware of anything changing for the better in Pakistan when she was running things. And as far as her credentials as a democratic opposition leader, it’s worth noting that she’s not the democratically elected leader who was deposed in Musharraf’s coup — her rival Nawaz Sharif was. Her plan was to use her strong base of support in the US to cajole Musharraf into some kind of power-sharing agreement with her. And if she’d gotten a bigger share of the power, she would have used it to steal more money.
Now, of course, the trouble is that I don’t know what I’m talking about. But the vast majority of people who do know what they’re talking about know what they’re talking about . . . based on talking to Bhutto and members of her political party. Bhutto was well-connected in the West. Her party is less Islam-inflected than its main rivals, which is appealing to westerners. She went to western schools as did a lot of her associates. They know people. But being “well-informed” about the situation through close ties with a partisan actor inside Pakistan is arguable no better than being totally uninformed. What you want is real expertise — in-depth knowledge of the Pakistani situation, ability to speak to players who don’t speak English and don’t attend Western universities, wide-ranging associations with Pakistanis and ability to follow the Pakistani press.
But almost nobody has that. Which is why most of all, I sympathize with this statement from Zbigniew Brzezinski:
I think the United States should not get involved in Pakistani politics. I deplore the absence of democracy in Pakistan, but I think admonitions from outside, injecting exile politicians into Pakistan, telling the Pakistan president what he should or should not wear, that he should take off his uniform, I don’t really think this is America’s business and I don’t think it helps to consolidate stability in Pakistan.
I don’t know whether or not it’s “our business” but the point is that we’re unlikely to be able to do this effectively. The US, being rich and strong, has a good deal of influence to throw around in Pakistan. But it’s much easier for Pakistani actors to manipulate US policy than the reverse. We don’t have the know-how, we don’t have the expertise, and we never will. What we need to do is focus on what we can know — what are our key interests in Pakistan — and articulate them clearly and consistently combined with the proviso that we’re willing to work with whatever kind of leadership Pakistan has on ways to advance our interests. Trying to pick the “best” faction and then shift things around so they wind up in power seems like a doomed mission. In general, the idea that the correct response to 9/11 was for the United States to start engaging more vigorously in efforts to micromanage political outcomes in Muslim countries seems badly mistaken. We need to make our policies more robust against internal political disagreements in the Islamic world, not do a better job of picking sides.