Don’t bury Pakistani democracy with Bhutto

FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images In the wake of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, many will want the United States to rush back into the arms of the one known quantity in Pakistan: reliable strongman Pervez Musharraf. It’s an understandable temptation—but a dangerous one. As the dust settles, America must be careful to keep its distance from ...

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A Pakistani boy holds a draw of assassinated Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto during a demontration, 28 December 2007 in Rome. Bhutto, a two-time former premier and Pakistan's main opposition leader, was killed in a gun and suicide bomb attack, as she left a campaign rally Thursday in the northern city of Rawalpindi. AFP PHOTO / FILIPPO MONTEFORTE (Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)

FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images

In the wake of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, many will want the United States to rush back into the arms of the one known quantity in Pakistan: reliable strongman Pervez Musharraf. It's an understandable temptation—but a dangerous one. As the dust settles, America must be careful to keep its distance from the general, and stand for democracy.

With the country crumbling before our eyes, calling for Pakistani democracy may sound like a roll of the dice. Islamist radicals are gaining a foothold in the cities. Multiple insurgencies rage in the frontier areas. And with Bhutto's murder, terrorists have proven they can easily strike in Rawalpindi, the Army's home base. Moreover, the most prominent remaining opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, has a penchant for anti-American diatribes and was hapless as prime minister before Musharraf ousted him in a 1999 coup. Wouldn't it be safer just to let Pakistan's strongman keep the lid on? After all, we're talking about an Islamic state armed with nuclear weapons.

FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images

In the wake of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, many will want the United States to rush back into the arms of the one known quantity in Pakistan: reliable strongman Pervez Musharraf. It’s an understandable temptation—but a dangerous one. As the dust settles, America must be careful to keep its distance from the general, and stand for democracy.

With the country crumbling before our eyes, calling for Pakistani democracy may sound like a roll of the dice. Islamist radicals are gaining a foothold in the cities. Multiple insurgencies rage in the frontier areas. And with Bhutto’s murder, terrorists have proven they can easily strike in Rawalpindi, the Army’s home base. Moreover, the most prominent remaining opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, has a penchant for anti-American diatribes and was hapless as prime minister before Musharraf ousted him in a 1999 coup. Wouldn’t it be safer just to let Pakistan’s strongman keep the lid on? After all, we’re talking about an Islamic state armed with nuclear weapons.

In fact, Musharraf’s autocratic rule is a major part of the problem. For a man who styles himself as a bulwark against extremists, the results have been paltry indeed. The increasingly unpopular general has gone after lawyers and judges with seemingly more gusto than he has against the Taliban and al Qaeda. On Musharraf’s watch, al Qaeda has rebuilt its terrorist redoubts in the tribal areas and the Taliban is resurgent on both sides of the Afghan border. Musharraf has become less popular in Pakistan than Osama bin Laden, according to one recent poll. Some bulwark.

This is not to say that Bhutto was the second coming of George Washington. Schooled at Harvard and Oxford, she was an eloquent English speaker who could charm a FOX News anchor or a Georgetown cocktail party. Bhutto called passionately for a restoration of democracy in Pakistan, and showed incredible courage in the face of repeated death threats. But the former prime minister was never quite the democratic savior she presented herself to be. A feudal landholder who appointed herself head of her political party for life, Bhutto was corrupt and largely incompetent when she was in power.

The question of who should rule Pakistan, however, was never about just one woman. Nor should it be about one man. Investing U.S. hopes in a single leader who tells us what we want to hear is shortsighted, even risky. It’s a mistake the United States has made far too often in its history, most tragically in Iran under the Shah. Instead of hitching its star to any particular individual, America should support the Pakistani people’s right to elect their own leaders and hold those leaders—rather than us—accountable if they fail.

But what about the nukes? Could radical Islamists come to power and get their hands on the bomb? I strongly doubt it. For all the mayhem they can cause, the radicals have never posed a serious threat at the ballot box. Pakistani politics are dominated by the country’s two main ethnic groups, Punjabis and Sindhis. Both are relatively moderate. And in the unlikely event that extremists try to seize power by force of arms, stringent U.S. oversight has ensured that Pakistan’s pro-Western military would retain firm control over the country’s nuclear arsenal.

Indeed, Pakistan’s military would still wield a great deal of power under any civilian leader, as it did under Bhutto and Sharif. It’s a reassuring thought. The Pakistani military is one of the most respected institutions in a fragmented country. Though holding them as scheduled on January 8 would be divisive, free and fair elections will eventually be less risky than many people fear. But continuing to let Pakistan slide into chaos under Pervez Musharraf? That may be the most risky strategy of all.

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