In the Aftermath: Riots, Dumb Western Columnists

by Joshua Foust on 12/28/2007 · 1 comment

Yesterday I repeated a rumor that riots were spreading to Pakistani several cities after Bhutto’s assassination; that appears to be very much true. Almost as interesting is how Bhutto is being played in the West. The vast majority of the normal people I spoke to yesterday—meaning, those who haven’t turned Asian politics into their hobby—expressed a sentiment along the lines of, “why do people love her so much if she was so corrupt?” It is an interesting question, and a very fair one to ask.

I can’t speak for Pakistanis (though I would guess it is a combination of her populist rhetoric, endless if unfulfilled promises of democratic reform, and tribal/feudal loyalties), but in the west, an Oxford-educated woman running a Muslim country (“by nature prone to extremism,” if you believe well-known Pakistan expert Victor Davis Hanson) is a story that is simply too good to ignore. Ms. Bhutto matched her sterling credentials with a keen instinct for the camera, and for the Western ear—hence her fawning portrayal as a martyr in media outlets.

Of course, this means we’re all in for a round of particularly odious and prima facie ridiculous commentary on Bhutto and What It All Means, from people who have no particular insight or knowledge of the place save their status as columnists who must feed the zeitgeist.

First up is David Ignatius, who hasn’t yet found an international situation he can’t oversimplify to the point of baby talk.

The Bush administration attempted a bit of political engineering when it tried to broker an alliance between Musharraf and Bhutto and sought to position her as the country’s next prime minister. Yesterday’s events were a reminder that global politics is not Prospero’s island, where we can conjure up the outcomes we want. In places such as Pakistan, where we can’t be sure where events are heading, the wisest course for the United States is the cautious one of trying to identify and protect American interests.

Right. And trying to broken an arrangement between a supposedly liberal force for change and the entrenched power wasn’t identifying and protecting American interests? I don’t get it. Ahmed “Taliban” Rashid, on the other hand, has legitimate expertise in the region, and in stark contrast to Ignatius’ insistence Musharraf “battled extremists,” makes a keen point:

In recent weeks, she had publicly taken on the Taliban extremists — something Musharraf has not dared to do, despite all his bluster and bonhomie with President Bush since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. With Bhutto gone, there is no one who can play such a role.

Her longest-running battle was not with the extremists but with the army, whose leaders never trusted her. She was too secular, too worldly and perhaps too wise.

That is a much more interesting point. Bhutto had the balls to stand up to the crazies; it is that courage we should celebrate, while also keeping in mind her family’s penchant for corruption (her father was hanged for as much, and she was booted from Parliament twice for it) is what ultimately undid her other virtues.

Then there is Robert Baer:

The common denominator between Pakistan, Gaza, Lebanon, and Iraq is an ongoing war, wars without end, wars that poison democracy. The Bush administration is particularly culpable in creating the chaos in Pakistan because it forced a premature reconciliation between President Musharraf and Bhutto; it forced Musharraf to lift martial law; it showered money on Musharraf to fight a war that was never popular in Pakistan. The administration could not understand that it can’t have both in Pakistan — a democracy and a war on terrorism.

What? That doesn’t make any sense—it seems to be blaming Bhutto’s murder on Musharraf, rather than on the crazies. (The culpability charge is particularly odious, as it will be repeated elsewhere: like in this piece in the Washington Post, which spends hundreds of words quoting people with no expertise in Pakistan about how we set her up, then quotes one actual expert at the end who says we actually didn’t do anything of the sort). But Baer doesn’t stop there.

The real problem in Pakistan undermining democracy is that it is a deeply divided, artificial country, created by the British for their expediency rather than for the Pakistanis. Independent Pakistan has always been dominated by a strong military. And democracy will only be nurtured when the wars on its border come to an end, whether in Afghanistan or Kashmir, and the need for the military to meddle in politics is removed. And never before.

Umm, I thought Pakistan was formed based on the Lahore Resolution, which was hammered out in 1940—many years before the British “created” Pakistan for their own expediency. Whatever, Baer is still pushing his generic argument against President Bush, which has made him particularly insufferable about his book was turned into the half-clever film Syriana.

The New York Times at least does us the courtesy of allowing their writers a few days to compose proper thoughts about Ms. Bhutto’s death—there is not a single op-ed about the assassination, though their editorial is typically ham-handed and overwrought.

I’m sure there are many more dumb things being spewed about Pakistan today (heaven help me if I ever turn on the TV). But wading through this crap is so tiring, I need to read something constructive.

Update: The inimitable Jeff Percefield sends along this typically insufferable Ralph Peters column, in which the pseudo-guru of Pakistan’s politics proclaims:

We need have no sympathy with her Islamist assassin and the extremists behind him to recognize that Bhutto was corrupt, divisive, dishonest and utterly devoid of genuine concern for her country…

In fact, Bhutto was a frivolously wealthy feudal landlord amid bleak poverty. The scion of a thieving political dynasty, she was always more concerned with power than with the wellbeing of the average Pakistani. Her program remained one of old-school patronage, not increased productivity or social decency.

Educated in expensive Western schools, she permitted Pakistan’s feeble education system to rot – opening the door to Islamists and their religious schools.

During her years as prime minister, Pakistan went backward, not forward. Her husband looted shamelessly and ended up fleeing the country, pursued by the courts. The Islamist threat – which she artfully played both ways – spread like cancer.

Huh. That’s actually not half-bad, though it would be better served through less venom. Peters, however, cannot help himself:

But she always knew how to work Westerners – unlike the hapless Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who sought the best for his tormented country but never knew how to package himself…

In Pakistan, the military has its own forms of graft; nonetheless, it remains the least corrupt institution in the country and the only force holding an unnatural state together. In Pakistan back in the ’90s, the only people I met who cared a whit about the common man were military officers.

Musharraf as a selfless hero of his nation? The military—most recently known for refusing to fire on extremists who happened to be of the same clan as the local unit—Pakistan’s least corrupt institution? Color me surprised. I daresay Peters’ military background, which has led him to say zany things like “the State Department is why Iraq is failing,” may be coloring his glasses a bit here. Recall the anecdote from Dana Priest’s The Mission, in which Musharraf calls Anthony Zinni right after he booted Nawaz Sharif to Saudi Arabia and solemnly swears to usher his country to democracy and liberalism.

Rich. Peters might have a point in that Ms. Bhutto’s murder could form a lightning rod in Pakistan. For the first time in a long while, Pakistan’s student body is forming political opinions. They are forming opinions, however, against the very Musharraf regime Peters lionizes as Pakistan’s only hope. The military is too lopsided an organization ever to rule Pakistan effectively—they are over-focused on India, and under-concerned with the very Islamists they use as proxy warriors in Jammu and Kashmir. Nevertheless, there is hope, however, scant, that the country might work through a real election (the very legitimate fears of Imran Khan notwithstanding), and, as it and many other Muslim countries have, firmly reject extremism.

So, like a typical Ralph Peters column, it is only half right, which is more than most pundits, but insufferably written. I’ll still take it over Bob Baer.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 1 comment }

Jamie Maddox December 29, 2007 at 3:23 am

Thank you for attempting to illustrate the complexities of the situation in Pakistan. I’ll admit, being a new student to Asian affairs and terrorism, I was quick to dig up all of my latent opinions collected over the last two years and spill them on someone. However, the media beat me to it. Bhutto’s assassination has only fed on the emotions of people waiting to point fingers and draw oversimplified conclusions about Pakistan’s future. The truth is, we don’t know the truth! How corrupt was Bhutto? What were her motivations for Pakistan? Those questions couldn’t never be answered in a newspaper column. I’m glad you brought up the importance of understanding her courage AND her corruption in concert. We can’t paint a pretty picture of her because of the circumstances surrounding her death. I doubt she would’ve “saved” Pakistan. However I admire her courage to face almost certain death to at least restore the conversation of democracy. I couldn’t read the news either. It made me sick.

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