Bhutto’s Murder and Lessons for Us All

December 28th, 2007

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Yesterday’s assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the once and future Prime Minister of Pakistan, has thrown this nuclear-armed Muslim country of 165 million people (one of whom is Osama bin Laden) to the edge of –or perhaps over – the brink of chaos. Her loss is a tragedy, not only for the people of Pakistan, but for those everywhere who believe in women’s rights, democracy and the rule of law. And her murder carries important lessons, not only for Pakistan and her neighbors, but for the United States as well.

As the Muslim world’s first elected female leader, Bhutto represented a symbol of possibility and empowerment for women across the globe. Moreover, her recent return to her home country after years in exile was hoped to signify Pakistan’s return to the path of democracy and rule of law after years of military dictatorship.

Unfortunately, for much of this dictatorship, the Bush administration has ignored the soaring rhetoric of the Bush Second Inauguration about promoting democracy. Instead, the Bush administration settled into a dangerous and naïve realpolitik, insisting that we needed Pakistan’s dictator President/General Pervez Musharraf to fight Islamist extremists. During that time, US taxpayers have footed the bill for more than $10 billion in aid to Pakistan, allegedly for combating al Qaeda and its allies. However, less than 10% of this money has funded the most effective methods of dismantling such movements in the long run: shutting down extremist madrassas while providing secular education alternatives, providing for economic opportunity, and extending the rule of law. More than 90% of the money and material has instead gone to the Pakistani military. Moreover, rather than using this military forcefully against al Qaeda and the Taliban, last year Musharraf cut a deal with the Islamist militants. This deal gave them free reign of much of the mountainous border regions between Pakistan and Afghanistan. From this amnesty area, these extremists continue to attack U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.

Bhutto was no angel. But her largest legacy will be of a strong-willed woman who represented the principles of secular democracy and political compromise. Despite serious allegations of corruption under her leadership, she was elected Prime Minister twice, and was building toward a third victory in this January’s elections. Plus, Bhutto was willing to work with her political rivals, within a democratic system adhering to the rule of law to peacefully move her country forward. It was this legacy that was attacked yesterday. It is a legacy that the Bush administration should have been fortifying for the past seven years, rather than simply throwing money and weapons at Musharraf’s military dictatorship.

The United States needs a leader who not only makes speeches about spreading democracy and the rule of law, but also put their money where their mouth is. If the U.S. had insisted that Pakistan spend just $3 billion of that $10 billion in aid on education and economic development rather than high-tech jet aircraft (good for dog-fights with India, bad for finding bin Laden), literally tens of thousands of new schools with books and teachers paid at $2,000/year (well above the national average for elementary teachers) could have replaced the madrassas where the next generation of Taliban and Al Qaeda are being incubated.

This is a day for Pakistan and the world to mourn. But it is also high-time for the U.S. to learn: we need leaders who are both tough and smart, ones that will honor Bhutto and other martyred democrats by insisting that Musharraf not just shed his military uniform, but also support a fully free-and-fair election to replace him as President and restore the democratic Pakistani Constitution. Then, we have to figure out how to do better than tossing $10 billion down a rat hole that has left Pakistani kids in training camps that are still being run by Osama bin Laden and his henchmen.