Condi Rice had a vision: It was springtime in Pakistan, and love was in the air—which was an ideal time for a chick flick. From the lady who brought us the Shiite-Sunni Love Fest in Iraq, Fatah-Hamas: Isn’t It Romantic? in Palestine, The Amorous Cedars in Lebanon, not to mention the first season of Democratic Idol in Ukraine (Viktor Yushchenko) and Georgia (Mikheil Saakashvili) would come a new production, A Match Made in Heaven, starring small-time military dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf and the slick and crooked ex-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
At the Happy End of this new romantic drama would come the ultimate Celebration of Sisterhood: Two hip babes are brought together—Rice, the symbol of the powerful awakening of African-American feminism, commanding the world’s attention with her pair of black knee-high boots, hugs Bhutto, whose trademark white scarf and diamond-studded designer glasses project the new face of modern and progressive Muslim women everywhere and nowhere.
When we try to deconstruct the modus operandi of powerful men, we are urged to search for the woman behind the throne. In the case of Benazir, we should probably “cherche les hommes,” where we will find Bhutto Père, Zulfikar Ali, a bloody tyrant and founder of his country’s nuclear program (hanged); brother Murtaza, a left-wing terrorist (killed on his sister’s orders); and corrupt hubby Asif Ali Zardari.
These are probably some of the best and the brightest public figures that Pakistan has produced. And, yes, the apple didn’t fall far from the trees. Witness what Jemima Khan (née Goldsmith), the British socialite who was once married to Pakistani cricket player Imran Khan, had to say about Bhutto: “Benazir may speak the language of liberalism and look good on Larry King’s sofa, but both her terms in office were marked by incompetence, extra-judicial killings and brazen looting of the treasury,” Jemima wrote in Britain’s daily Telegraph. “Benazir has always cynically used her gender to manipulate: I loved her answer to David Frost when he asked her how many millions she had in her Swiss bank accounts. ‘David, I think that’s a very sexist question.’ A non sequitur (does loot have a gender?) but one that brought the uncomfortable line of questioning to a swift end. Of all Pakistan’s elected leaders she conspicuously did the least to help the cause of women. She never, for example, repealed the Hudood Ordinances, Pakistan’s controversial laws that made no distinction between rape and adultery. She preferred instead to kowtow to the mullahs in order to cling to power, forming an expedient alliance with Pakistan’s Religious Coalition Party and leaving Pakistan’s women as powerless as she found them.” And the former Mrs. Khan concludes: “The problem is that the West never seems to learn; playing favorites in a complicated nation’s politics always backfires. Imposing Benazir on Pakistan is the opposite of democratic and doubtless will cause more chaos in an already unstable country. Make no mistake, Benazir may look the part, but she’s as ruthless and conniving as they come—a kleptocrat in a Hermes headscarf.”
So after discovering that “regime change” and democracy promotion seemed to have failed everywhere she has tried it, Condi decided to try it again—this time, in Pakistan, with Benazir (who does make Yushchenko and Saakashvili look like Jeffersonian democrats) supposedly leading her people to another promised land of freedom.
Indeed, Condi and her boss seemed to regard the warnings by George Santayana and Karl Marx, respectively (“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” and “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce”) as policy prescriptions: When you cannot get out of one hole, start digging new ones. Hence, Rice and Bush agreed that Washington needs to “do something” in order to force Pakistan’s President General Musharraf—whom Washington helped to sustain in power with billions of U.S. dollars—to “take off” his military uniform and allow free elections in the country. Infatuated with Benazir, whose performance suggests that she auditioned to play the role of Corazon Aquino in a Pakistani remake of the Philippines’ “People’s Power” extravaganza, they concluded that they could succeed in adding another color to the U.S.-sponsored democratic revolutions and, in the process, emerge as a leading opponent of radical Islamic terrorism.
And according to the script written in Washington, the American producer would not only choreograph the election of a woman who is committed to “liberal democratic values” but would even succeed in winning Musharraf’s agreement to play the role of supporting actor (as president) in the film, while Pakistan’s powerful military would be coopted as extras.
On the other hand, a filmmaker doing a documentary about Pakistan would have to consider that, like Iraq, Pakistan is not a unified nation-state but a disjointed confederation of many ethnic, religious, and tribal groups. Indeed, the regime cannot even control large parts of the country that are dominated by tribal leaders with links to the Taliban.
Moreover, Pakistani politics is a depressing story of military coups, civil wars, assassinations, and ethnic and religious bloodbaths—and a lot of corruption, much of which has been tolerated by Washington in exchange for Pakistani support during the Cold War and in the “War on Terror.” Bhutto and her illustrious family have been very much an integral part of this story. Hence, “Pakistani democracy” is an oxymoron—and buying into the notion that Bhutto would lead one reflects an astounding naiveté, if not ignorance.
Considering that, at present, Osama bin Laden is more popular than Musharraf and Bush in Pakistan, was it realistic to imagine that a political figure who is very divisive would ride into power with public support through a political scheme designed in Washington? Bhutto can surely talk the talk, employing p.r. and lobbying firms to market herself, an articulate and attractive Western-educated female, as America’s Woman in Islamabad. But she lacks the power and the skills to walk the walk. Even under the best-case scenario, she would end up playing the role of the puppet of Pakistan’s military and security services, just as she did during her last reign.
Did we mention that Pakistan, unlike Saddam’s Iraq—or, for that matter, Ukraine and Georgia—has nuclear weapons?
Indeed, the strategic importance of Pakistan in the context of the War on Terror and instability in the broader Middle East suggests that the country should not be subject at this point in time to one of America’s exercises in “regime change.” The most intriguing and disturbing historical analogy that is being discussed in Washington these days is the failed U.S. strategy to choreograph a transition of power when the shah of Iran was facing growing opposition to his rule in the late 1970’s. American meddling, which helped force him out of power while pressing the military to refrain from taking control, created the conditions for the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the electoral triumph of Ayatollah Khomeini and his allies.
Indeed, the worst-case scenario for Pakistan is not the continuing rule of a repressive military regime; after all, the military had ruled Pakistan directly for more than half the country’s existence. The nightmarish scenario that should cause sleepless nights for U.S. officials is one in which continuing instability in Pakistan leads to a violent civil war that could bring to power in the country—or in parts of it—a radical Islamic force.
The “Talibanization” of Pakistan would be regarded as a tremendous victory for Bin Laden and his allies. Not only would they be able to establish their power in a strategic part of the world, but they would also have access to the country’s nuclear military arsenal, making it more likely that the next September 11 would involve the use of weapons of mass destruction.
The U.S. “alliance” with Pakistan’s Musharraf after September 11 was based mostly on Realpolitik considerations, and here one can certainly make the argument that the Bush administration’s policy has been a failure: The Pakistanis have not delivered the remnants of the Taliban and Al Qaeda (including, perhaps, Bin Laden) who are hiding in Pakistan’s mountains. Washington should force Musharraf and the Pakistani military to deliver on their commitments to fight terrorism and work with Afghanistan and India to eradicate Islamic terrorists. From this perspective—one of U.S. national interests as opposed to Wilsonian daydreams—the problem that Washington is facing in Islamabad is not the rule by a strongman but the rule by a strongman who is really not very strong or very effective in delivering on his promises.
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