The real Benazir?

Today, Curtis and Katulis discuss Pakistan's upcoming elections. Previously, they debated giving U.S. foreign aid to an undemocratic regime and the prospects for a legitimate election in Pakistan . Later in the week, they'll discuss Benazir Bhutto, how losing Pakistan's alliance would affect the war on terrorism and more.

The main problem is the leader principleBy Brian Katulis
Benazir Bhutto's murder last month was the end of a remarkable life of a leader with a complicated historical legacy. In many ways, her life shaped as well as mirrored much of Pakistan's trajectory over the past three decades — and how the leaders and people of Pakistan respond to her death in the coming weeks and beyond will shape whether Pakistan heads down the path of greater stability or greater turmoil.

Today's question from the Los Angeles Times team has the unfortunate disadvantage of reducing a complex life to a false choice: beacon of democracy or corrupt opportunist? Bhutto was both of these things — and much more. In the pages of this newspaper alone, the views on her complicated legacy have been on full display for the past few months — including a piece today from a former close advisor who praises her legacy and the choice keep her family in charge of the Pakistan Peoples Party. In contrast, just a few months ago, one of Bhutto's nieces had an Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times sharply critical of Bhutto and questioning whether she was the agent for democratic reform that she was presenting herself as after her return to Pakistan last year. Half a world away, the debate in Pakistan on Bhutto's legacy is even more complicated.

History will likely first remember her for what she was able to achieve at a young age — Bhutto became Pakistan's youngest prime minister at the age of 35 in 1988, as well as the first woman to lead a Muslim-majority country in the modern era.

Her supporters cite her accomplishments as prime minister — advances in health and education, including the building of tens of thousands of new schools and putting more emphasis on science and technical education. In addition to her push for development, her supporters cite her leadership as a symbol pushing against a corrupt old order in a military-dominated government.

On the negative side, Bhutto is criticized as a corrupt, elitist politician whose husband benefited from Bhutto's time in power. In addition, others mention Pakistan's support for the Taliban in the 1990s, including during her second term as prime minister. Also, Bhutto was one of the prime ministers of Pakistan while nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, made advances in building the country's nuclear program and weapons. In 1990, while she was prime minister, Bhutto presented Khan with the Hilal-i-Imtiaz, one of the Pakistan's highest honors for civilians. In giving this award, Bhutto said, "Pakistan is proud to have a man of Dr. A.Q. Khan's caliber. I hope the country will have more men of such eminence. He has made an invaluable contribution, not only in the nuclear field, but also in other fields, including defense production." Khan went on to build an international network that led to dangerous transfers of nuclear technology that have undermined global security.

In the weeks before her death, Bhutto had enjoyed a renaissance in her image, particularly in the United States and the West, where many began to see her as a lynchpin to moving beyond Pervez Musharraf's weakened and discredited leadership. Inside Pakistan, the story was much more complicated, as growing numbers of Pakistanis seemed to be looking for a fresh batch of leaders. In a public opinion poll conducted by the International Republican Institute in November of last year, Bhutto was selected as the one leader who could best handle Pakistan's problems — but only by 31 percent of the public. Though she came out on top of Musharraf, Nawaz Sharif, and other leaders on this question in this particular poll, the overall findings demonstrated a Pakistan that is perhaps undergoing greater political fragmentation and experiencing a stronger public desire for new leaders.

At the start of 2008, there are no easy answers on Pakistan. Perhaps one starting point could be to start looking beyond individual leaders like Bhutto as either a beacon for democracy or a corrupt opportunist. For far too long, U.S. foreign policy has been heavily dependent on relationships with individual leaders — whether it is Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, or even Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Focusing on how the United States can bring to bear the full range of its considerable powers — including economic and diplomatic powers, as well as its military and intelligence — in policies that help build functioning institutions that expand stability and prosperity in places like Pakistan. Developing a coherent strategy that balances all of our competing interests is an unenviable task for U.S. policymakers. But past experience in Pakistan demonstrates that putting our hopes on a single leader or a single election rarely makes Americans safer or advances stability and prosperity in other countries.

Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, is the coauthor of the forthcoming book, "The Prosperity Agenda."

The historic ties are deeper than any leaderBy Lisa Curtis
Benazir Bhutto was no angel, but she may have been the savior Pakistan needed at this critical moment in its history.

Her biggest flaw was that she was part of the feudal establishment that has perpetuated poverty and lack of education for millions of Pakistanis and kept the country from growing as much economically as it otherwise could. Bhutto and her husband's personal corruption also tainted her reputation, and many Pakistanis accuse her of plundering the country's exchequer, especially during her second stint in power from 1993 - 1996. References to Bhutto's husband, Asif Zardari, now co-chairman of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), as "Mr. Ten Percent" date back to 1990, when he was arrested on charges of embezzlement and using undue influence to obtain illegal bank loans during her first run as prime minister. In 2003, both were convicted in Switzerland of money laundering and for receiving bribes from Swiss firms during her second tenure.

Despite her flaws, however, Benazir Bhutto's popularity proved remarkably durable. When she returned to the country in mid-October, she drew tens of thousands of supporters into the streets. But it was not only Benazir they were greeting. She symbolized for many Pakistanis a hope that their country could pull itself out of the spiraling extremist violence gripping the nation and return to democratic government. Many were surprised that despite an eight-year absence, she still enjoyed solid support from her party's base. She also demonstrated she could still handle deftly the complicated politics of Pakistan, managing to convince Nawaz Sharif to participate in the election as a way to challenge the legitimacy of the polls, rather than allow Musharraf's party to benefit from their parties' boycott.

Her return to Pakistan energized the nation. According to observers, there was a sense of exhilaration and even "dancing in the streets," a rare sight in a society that has grown increasingly conservative over the last decade. But when she spoke to the crowds, her message was serious, and focused on prioritizing efforts to defeat Taliban and al-Qaeda forces threatening stability in Pakistan. This message resonated with many Pakistanis, but was ridiculed by some of Musharraf's closest supporters, one of whom announced one month before her assassination that her "imperialistic policies" would invite suicide bombings.

I disagree, Brian, that Bhutto alone should be blamed for Pakistani policies on the Taliban and the nuclear program in the mid-1990s. Although Bhutto ran the civilian government, the military continued to have a strong role in developing Pakistan's national security policies. Blaming Bhutto for these policies overlooks the fact that she never had full control of the military. She was aware that if she stepped too far out of bounds on issues related to national security, she would face the Damocles sword of the military hanging over her head.

It's no secret that the U.S. agreed with her assessment of the threat facing Pakistan and the need to address it in a serious and sustained manner. Washington also believed that a strong showing by the mainstream secular parties in an election would demonstrate that few Pakistanis support the extremist Islamic agenda and, in turn, strengthen the mandate of any future prime minister acting to combat extremism and terrorism.

I agree, Brian, that the U.S. needs to move beyond a policy of supporting individuals and focus on supporting the process of democracy. Washington has not been served well in Pakistan by its overly close association with President Musharraf. Although he has been a strong ally in the fight against terrorism since 9/11, any Pakistani leader likely would have made the same critical decision to break ties to the Taliban and support the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. It is the long-term, broad relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan that has served as the backdrop to Pakistan's cooperation in the war on terrorism. This cooperation is based on historical ties and buttressed by large amounts of economic and military assistance, which means it will almost certainly continue, even if Musharraf is not in charge.

We will never know if Benazir Bhutto could have lived up to her campaign promises or what kind of role she would have played after an election. We can only hope that whoever takes the helm after next month's election will continue her same message and pursue policies that tackle extremism so that Pakistanis can have a future of freedom, prosperity and engagement with the global community, rather than one of repressive Talibanization and repeated suicide bombings that increase fear and further ethnic divisions.

Lisa Curtis is a senior research fellow in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation (

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