Benazir Bhutto’s assassination yesterday in Rawalpindi deserves some comment, and actually deserves much more than I will be able to give in the short time I have today. Djerejian has interrupted his hiatus and said much that needs to be said. In short, I am still convinced that Musharraf is a liability to the stability of Pakistan, as I have argued twice before in TAC, and I agree that it would be wise to watch what Kiyani does in the coming weeks. With no disrespect intended to Bhutto, I think we have (as usual) personalised our view of Pakistan policy far too much and many now seem to assume that Bhutto’s death makes civilian government in Pakistan unfeasible. That strikes me as a mistaken conclusion. If the structures of Pakistani civil society, such as they are, are so weak that a single assassination can so badly undermine them, they will not be prepared for the task of a return to civilian rule in the next many years. I think this places far too much importance on one party leader and stands as an example of how we routinely misunderstand the politics of other countries by investing hopes for reform, democratisation or Westernisation in a single person, who then is either killed or badly disappoints the people who foolishly placed so much emphasis on one leader. That said, the current situation in Pakistan is unstable enough that any elections held in the next few weeks would be plagued with violence and be the cause of still more outbreaks of civil unrest.
On the effects of the assassination on our presidential politics, Ross makes an interesting point:
Our Pakistan problem is a vexatious question, ill-suited to being addressed in sound bites and press releases. But it’s precisely because it’s so impossibly vexatious, and likely to remain so no matter who occupies 1600 Pennsylvania, that the news from Rawalpindi fleetingly inspired me to greater sympathy not for “ready to lead” politicians like John McCain or Hillary Clinton, but for the “come home, America” candidacy of one Dr. Ron Paul.
To the extent that most pundits and journalists are not reacting this way, but are instead playing up McCain and Clinton, any effect this assassination will have on our politics will be determined by the willingness of our media to accept at face value the campaign narratives of these candidates. As it happens, McCain was saying some uncommonly sane and sober things about Pakistan yesterday in an interview with Laura Ingraham, swatting down Obama and Huckabee’s Kaganesque lunacy of ordering American soldiers to go inside Pakistan.
If the events in Pakistan have any impact on caucus-goers and primary voters, which I very much doubt in light of the extremely limited attention most will have been paying to foreign affairs, much less Pakistani affairs, they will benefit candidates who appear to understand Pakistan and who have not made provocative or dangerous statements about Pakistan policy. (Huckabee’s provocative statements cancel out his surprisingly well-informed grasp on Pakistan’s internal politics.) By all rights, Paul, Biden and, indeed, McCain ought to gain if the late-deciding, uncommitted voters are actually moved to make their decision based on what happened on the other side of the world. That is almost certainly not the case. What it will change is the relative kid-glove treatment that all the major candidates have received concerning their foreign policy ideas. The candidates coming out of Iowa who will likely have prevailed on their domestic policy agenda, namely Edwards and Huckabee, will have to demonstrate some competence on foreign affairs if they are to avoid even more intense criticism.