Day By Day

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Bhutto Assassinated

This is HUGE! Not only does it destabilize Pakistan, a nuclear power, but it threatens the security of all South Asia. Reporters on the scene are saying that conspiracy theories are rife. Bhutto's supporters are blaming Musharraf, Western observers blame Islamist radicals. I tend toward the latter view.

Whoever is at fault, this is a major victory for the Islamists, who have been under enormous pressure everywhere. Bhutto was pro-US, as was Musharraf. This knocks both of them out. The domestic turmoil that is sure to ensue will provide al Qaeda and their allies with lots of opportunities. The best that can be hoped for is that a pro-Western military strongman will impose order, but that feeds into the Islamist narrative too.

One small positive note: this transforms Bhutto into a martyr -- one with a pro-Western bias.

The Telegraph has an excellent obituary on this remarkable woman [here].

John Podhoretz notes [here] that this has big implications for the American political process. It is a slap in the face to naifs like Obama and Huckabee, both of whom have been pushing simplistic foreign policy lines.

It takes attention away from Hillary's domestic pandering. It serves as a reminder of just how dangerous the world is, and it boosts the credentials of John McCain who is the only candidate in either party who can be taken seriously on foreign policy grounds. Already, before 11:00 am, he is on FOX calling for stability and sounding presidential.

Hillary is on the tube sympathizing with the Bhutto family, especially the children, emphasizing the fact that she knew and corresponded with Bhutto, and calling for the Pakistani people to reject violence and to embrace democracy. She touts her "experience" and claims to be the only candidate ready to take charge from "day one." She refers to Obama as "naive".

McCain is back on with a statement. The contrast between him and Hillary is stark. She hits family themes, claims experience, but does no more than to call upon the Pakistani people to embrace democracy, then returns immediately to domestic politics. McCain is talking about the threat to Pakistan and the region, on the need to maintain order, reminds us that he knew Bhutto personally and also knows Musharraf, talks about extending aid to the Pakistani government and consulting with the UN and with regional powers. He sounds competent and presidential, she doesn't.

Bush made a very brief and formal statement, expressing condolences to all those who lost family members in the attack and calling for order and a commitment to democratic principles.


Michael Ledeen reports that al Qaeda is taking credit for the assassination, claiming to have eliminated a major American asset in the region. [here]

Giuliani has no trouble identifying this with al Qaeda and takes a tough line. He calls for close cooperation with Musharraf and emphasizes the need to stay on offense against Islamic terrorism. The most important thing is to maintain the stability of the country. Things like democracy are important, but right now the most important thing is to maintain stability. Once we get through the crisis we can sit down and think about long-term responses, but for now keep the focus on stability. He emphasizes that it is a difficult situation and nobody has much information on what is going on. This is not a time for precipitous action.

Obama reminds people to turn out for the caucuses, then briefly states that the US is resolute in support of democracy and against terrorism. Nothing else.

The contrast that is emerging is interesting, and perhaps significant. Hillary was first out of the box with a statement, but it was unfocused and not very informative. She simply asserted that she had experience and her rivals didn't. McCain was also quick off the mark and had more details. He favors a regional approach with UN involvement to maintain stability. Giuliani emphasizes the need to hit back at the terrorists, and to keep the pressure on them.

Bill Richardson, who has real foreign policy credentials, had the most stupid response. He called on Bush to force Mussharaf to relinquish power and (get this) to withhold all military aid to Pakistan. Just what he expects to emerge from that I can't imagine.

Biden calls for holding the elections and putting extreme pressure on Musharraf to make certain that they are clean and free. His hope is that the moderate middle-class secularists will assert themselves and establish a liberal regime. He's even more of a democratic idealist than he has accused Bush of being.

Romney called for the leaders of the "civilized" nations to come together in support of moderate Islamic leaders and regimes to marginalize radical extremists. He, like McCain, identifies the problem not with the Pakistani regime so much as with the radical Islamists.

This is the great testing time for Pakistan. The assassination of Bhutto is an event comparable to the destruction of the Golden Mosque in Iraq that set off more than a year of terrible internecine war. The question is whether Pakistan can carry through the current crisis, maintain some degree of stability, refrain from civil war, and make progress toward functioning democracy. If so, the future for Islam and for democracy is bright. If not, the possibility that Islamists will gain control of nuclear weapons is much greater.

Basically the responses of the major candidates fall into three groups -- realists, headed by Giuliani, who look to Musharraf and the military to maintain stability; internationalists like Romney who look to a consortium of nations and international agencies to control the situation; and democratic idealists like Richardson and Biden, who look for a spontaneous rising of the secular middle classes once the current regime is brought down. The only figure with a realistic approach is McCain who recognizes the necessary role of the army in maintaining stability, who advocates increasing rather than cutting off aid to the troubled nation, and who wants to work with international, particularly regional, institutions to ease the transition to a stable, democratic regime. Hillary, unfortunately, sounds merely confused. She doesn't handle crisis well, and this weakness is starting to show to the extent that people are beginning to notice.

Oh, what about Huckabee? He's praying for the people of Pakistan.

Some thoughts:

What sticks out is how much the prescriptions offered by Biden and Richardson resemble those of the "neo-cons" prior to the Iraq invasion. They argue, in essence, that if the tyrant is deposed a secular, liberal regime will spontaneously emerge. Yeah!

The diversity of responses highlights the lack of anything remotely resembling a consensus in this country on matters of foreign affairs.