As a long-time Pakistanophobe, it probably behooves me to say that we shouldn’t panic about the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.
Regardless of anyone’s views of Bhutto, Musharraf or Pakistan as a whole, this is a terrible event for Pakistan and a graphic illustration of how troubled the politics of that country are. Pakistan, after all, has been here before, as has the Bhutto family: Bhutto’s father was executed after a highly questionable trial for allegedly plotting the murder of a political opponent; two of her brothers were assassinated; and Bhutto family nemesis Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq was probably assassinated as well. But there is no reason at this point to assume that Bhutto’s assassination is the event that topples Pakistan into the abyss. Bhutto was by no means the entirety of the Pakistani opposition to Musharraf, nor did she have it in her power to solve Pakistan’s very deep problems. The U.S. determination to see her reinstalled had more to do with face-saving on our part than anything else – our transparent support for Musharraf’s dictatorship had become an embarrassment, and a corrupt power-sharing arrangement between Musharraf and Bhutto was the best way to mitigate that. That particular policy is indeed in tatters, but it wasn’t much of a policy to begin with, so we shouldn’t overstate the significance of the assassination for the future of Pakistan or of American policy towards the subcontinent.
Who was behind the assassination? Obviously anybody who speculates at this point is guessing. I’m skeptical that terrorists could pull this off without at a minimum the tacit if not the active support of some portion of the security establishment. I’m also skeptical that Musharraf would order this; the United States badly wanted a reconciliation with Bhutto, and Musharraf’s main source of support has been the United States, plus the assassination will only weaken him and strengthen support for the popular opposition (which is not limited to Bhutto personally or to the PPP), which he would certainly have predicted. That leaves elements of the military who are interested in positioning themselves as the potential alternative to (or power behind) a crippled Musharraf. The Pakistani military is an economically, politically and culturally pervasive force. It’s unlikely they seriously anticipated the wholesale uprooting of this system if Bhutto were elected. But there could certainly be legitimate worries about what a bargain between Musharraf and Bhutto portended towards Musharraf’s military rivals and potential successors.
What do we do now? The temptation will be to get more heavily involved, in the name of defending democracy and defeating terrorism and Islamic fanaticism. That would certainly appear to be the heroic course of action. But this is a good time to remind ourselves that we are Americans. not Pakistanis, and that while this event will surely affect us, it is not about us, and making it about us is unlikely to be the optimal response. Indeed, I would argue that we should take this opportunity to reduce our exposure to events inside Pakistan. We would have to do so carefully, so as not to suggest either that we are giving tacit support for another military coup or that we are “cutting and running” in the face of “aggression.” But I don’t think that’s an impossible task merely because it’s a delicate one. Over-close identification with Bhutto was as problematic for us – and for the PPP – as our over-identification with Musharraf was for us and for his rule. Ultimately, the regime in Pakistan must derive its legitimacy from the Pakistani people; we can stand for that principle without getting involved in trying to engineer the outcome. This is particularly true in Pakistan, because “the Pakistani people” is a shaky concept already, and one that our involvement cannot make firmer (except by galvinizing opposition to us). The cross-currents of Pakistani identity – Islamist versus secularist, military versus civilian, urban versus rural, Punjabi versus Sindhi versus Pashto versus Balochi – are very poorly managed by the political system; there has never been, in my opinion, an authentic Pakistani nationalism, which accounts for the extreme fragility of its political system relative to, say, India or Iran. I am very skeptical about the ability of outsiders to “fix” or “build” Pakistan. So we should take a step back. We have no meaningful commercial interests in Pakistan; our interests are really limited to our fight against al Qaeda and the need to keep Pakistan’s nuclear weapons under responsible control (i.e., not transferred to terrorists or enemy states, not launched against India, etc). If we can make reasonable progress towards achieving these goals without a close alliance with the next Pakistani regime, we should emphatically seek to do so, as any such close alliance should be understood as acquiring a liability and not an asset. We will, of course, need some kind of working relationship with Pakistan, regardless of who winds up in charge. But we badly need to put a bit of distance between ourselves and any faction within that country. I approve of the President’s call for the political process to continue, because it should be clear that an illegitimate government will have a less close relationship with the United States than a legitimate one. But we should not be issuing demands or ultimata, and we should be making it clear that our door is open to all participants in the electoral process.
Finally, lest I be misunderstood, I am not a partisan of the American Kosher Deli school of international relations. America has recently supported certain foreign policy goals – such as the toppling of the Taliban regime – that were also Indian goals. India is also a major beneficiary of the liberal international economic order that America has championed, inasmuch is it has a large, cheap, educated, English-speaking bourgeoisie (large in absolute terms, not as a percentage of the Indian population). Our disposition towards India and towards Indian attempts to take a greater role in global affairs should generally be friendly. But we have very little to gain by overt alliance with India, and frankly neither does India, which is why such an alliance hasn’t happened, the proposed nuclear deal notwithstanding. There’s a great temptation, left over from the Cold War, to divide the entire world into “sides” – but in fact, most of the world isn’t on any “side” in some grand conflict, and trying to line everybody up risks making ourselves captive to other countries’ parochial interests that we do not share, while simultaneously undermining the integrity of their political systems.