Another Bush Legacy: The Powder Keg in Pakistan

As the bromides and bunkum of primary season lurch into caucus-eve overdrive in Iowa, the rest of the world has upstaged the election-addled news cycle. A new Osama bin Laden video, a Colombian hostage crisis and—most of all—the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto have made weary onlookers newly aware that there will be a long, grave to-do list awaiting whichever candidate prevails in the cartoonish 2008 presidential race.

Bhutto’s death marks the most sobering setback for the U.S. policy elite because it points up the absence of any coherent policy in the critical majority-Muslim nation, now the third-leading recipient of U.S. military aid, behind Israel and Egypt.

Ever since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the Bush White House has let American policy chime in unison with the interests of Pakistan’s strongman leader Pervez Musharraf—whom candidate George W. Bush famously failed to name in a 2000 campaign pop quiz on world affairs shortly after Musharraf came to power in a bloodless coup. Indeed, the upcoming January Pakistan election—which may be delayed several weeks as Bhutto’s son and widower succeed her as joint leaders of the Pakistan Peoples Party—marked the first significant U.S. deviation from its no-strings-attached commitment to shoring up General Musharraf’s increasingly authoritarian regime. State Department representatives let General Musharraf know that he would be expected to minimize tampering with this month’s Pakistani presidential ballot—which even in the best of times falls significantly short of “free and fair” status—while also relinquishing his leadership position in the always influential Pakistani military.

These were modest policy departures. But even so, observers of the region note, it was a tough sell to White House hardliners.

“The decision to try to be the broker of a deal between Benazir and Pervez was a divisive question in the White House,” says Bruce Riedel, a 30-year C.I.A. veteran who served as a South Asian national security adviser to the administrations of George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and now is a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. “The National Security Council and the vice president’s office had to be convinced under a lot of pressure to come around to this, and I suspect that their hearts were never fully in it.”

One stark measure of this lassitude was the clear alarm sounded by a pair of suicide-bomb attacks on pro-Bhutto crowds greeting the opposition candidate as she headed to the Karachi airport after a major rally in support of her candidacy. After the attack—which claimed the lives of more than 140 Pakistanis—Texas Democratic Representative Shelia Jackson Lee, who co-chairs the House Pakistan caucus, wrote to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice imploring the United States to pursue more active security measures in concert with the United Nations to ensure the safety of Bhutto, General Musharraf and other Pakistani political leaders. Senators Joseph Biden, Patrick Leahy and Joseph Lieberman sent a similar letter directly to General Musharraf—a legislative overture that wouldn’t be necessary if a more robust White House commitment to the security of Bhutto and other candidates were in place.

“Over the last two or three months, we’ve been crying ourselves hoarse to the United States and Musharraf to provide Madame Bhutto with more security,” says a U.S. representative of the P.P.P. who requested anonymity due to Pakistan’s volatile political state. “There were intimidation and harassment happening every night. In the middle of the night, I’d get an e-mail from one of her rallies saying there was full security on hand—and then, a few hours later, I’d hear that all the security was gone. These harassment tactics had been going on for months—and for God’s sake, this is a former prime minister we’re talking about.”

One can only hope that General Musharraf and his U.S. backers will step up security measures as Bhutto’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari, and son, Bilawal Zardari, succeed to the P.P.P. leadership for the coming elections.

Another Bush Legacy: The Powder Keg in Pakistan