Dec 27, 2007

Why Benazir Bhutto's Assassination Matters

By Joel C. Rosenberg

(Washington, D.C., December 27, 2007) -- Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated Thursday by Islamic radicals. A leading pro-democracy and pro-Westerner political reformer in the Muslim world, Bhutto had just finished addressing a campaign rally of supporters in the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi. Jihadists opened fire on the once and possibly future premier using automatic weapons, hitting her in the neck and chest. A suicide bomber then blew himself up at site, leaving Bhutto dead and killing at least 20 others.

The attack is certainly another tragedy for Bhutto's family (her father, who was premier in the late 1970s, was hanged by radicals in 1979) and we should be praying for their peace and comfort during this difficult time. But why else does Bhutto's death matter?

To be blunt: Pakistan and her nuclear weapons are in danger of falling into the hands of Islamic radicals. Such radicals have attempted to assassinate Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf multiple times in the last few years, hoping to seize control of the government and impose sharia law. Today's attack is a sobering reminder that Pakistan is just one coup d'etat away from Osama bin Laden or one of his fanatical, murderous allies suddenly gaining control. It is difficult to imagine a more nightmarish scenario than al-Qaeda in possession of Pakistan's nuclear arsensal, but this is not an impossibility.

For several years, and certainly throughout 2007, Musharraf has been severely criticized by Western leaders -- including those here in Washington, D.C. -- for imposing martial law and employing other heavy-handed tactics in an attempt to crush the radicals and safeguard the country from their control. He has deserved some of this criticism, but we must also keep things in perspective.

While we all want Pakistan to become a fully-developed democracy -- peaceful, prosperous and healthy in all respects -- we must be very careful never to underestimate the danger that Musharraf and his colleagues are in from the radicals. They are in a battle not just for the soul but the very survival of their country. I personally have serious concerns about how truly committed Musharraf is to Jeffersonian democracy. But I do not believe that he is the worst-case scenario for Pakistan. Bin Laden (or bid Laden-ism) is the worst case scenario.

Let us, therefore, take great pains not repeat the mistakes that President Jimmy Carter made in the late-1970s when he pressed so hard for democracy and human rights in Iran that the Shah eventually was forced to flee the country and the Ayatollah Khomeini took over. As deeply flawed as the Shah was, can anyone effectively argue today that Khomeini was better for the people of Iran, the people of the epicenter, or the world at large?

FYI: Benazir Bhutto, it should be noted, became the first woman prime minister of a Muslim country on December 2, 1988 and served until August 6, 1990. She was later reelected Prime Minister, serving from October 19, 1993 through November 5, 1996.

FYI: Agence France Presse reports that "there have been more than 40 suicide attacks in Pakistan this year that have left at least 770 people dead" and notes that "the deadliest terror attack in Pakistan's history targetted her homecoming rally just hours after her return, leaving 139 people dead".

FYI: The New York Times reports that "the attack the latest blow to Pakistan's treacherous political situation. It comes just days after President Pervez Musharraf lifted a state of emergency, imposed in part because of terrorist threats. Ms. Bhutto, 54, returned from self-imposed exile to Pakistan this year to present herself as the answer to the nation's troubles: a tribune of democracy in a state that has been under military rule for eight years, and the leader of the country's largest opposition political party, founded by her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, one of Pakistan's most flamboyant and democratically inclined prime ministers. But her record in power, and the dance of veils she has deftly performed since her return -- one moment standing up to the Pakistan president, General Musharraf, then next seeming to accommodate him, and never quite revealing her actual intentions -- has stirred as much distrust as hope among Pakistanis."