Thursday, December 27, 2007

Real Leadership on Pakistan

I woke up on the west cost this morning to the horrifying news that Pakistan’s Benzair Bhutto has been assassinated – martyred by bullet at a rally in Rawalpindi. Chaos has erupted across Pakistan, as it did across the US when Martin Luther King was killed. Bhutto was the former prime minister of Pakistan (the first woman to hold the job) who recently returned to the country after an eight year exile. Like President Musharraf, she is a moderate, but she stands for calm and prosperity in a way that he does not. She had hoped to be elected to a third term as prime minister in next month’s elections. Her death, and the deaths of 20 other people at her rally, is shocking and saddening. This must feel to many Pakistanis the way Robert Kennedy’s death felt to many Americans. It could signal the end of hope.

(Reuters Photo above: Supporters of former Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto burn shops during a protest against her assassination in her home town of Larkana. Bhutto was assassinated by a suicide bomber on Thursday, plunging the nuclear-armed country into chaos ahead of a general election she hoped to win. Reuters Photo below: Pakistan's former Prime Minister and opposition leader Benazir Bhutto waves during an election rally in Rawalpindi December 27, 2007, shortly before she was killed in a gun and bomb attack.)

President Musharraf must take this unprecedented moment to show his country leadership rather than his normal personal ambition and fearmongering. A month or so ago, he declared emergency rule in the country, rounding up lawyers and placing Bhutto under house arrest. He is not off to an auspicious start this time, either:

"At the hospital where Bhutto died, some supporters smashed glass and wailed, chanting slogans against President Pervez Musharraf. Musharraf blamed Islamic extremists for her death and said he would redouble his efforts to fight them.

'This is the work of those terrorists with whom we are engaged in war,' he said in a nationally televised speech. 'I have been saying that the nation faces the greatest threats from these terrorists. ... We will not rest until we eliminate these terrorists and root them out.'…

Musharraf convened an emergency meeting with his senior staff, where they were expected to discuss whether to postpone the elections, an official at the Interior Ministry said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks."

(Reuters Photo: Bhutto's family mourns her death.) First of all, the woman’s body is still cold. We have no way of knowing yet who killed her, unless they actually caught the shooter. To instantly point fingers at the old enemies could very well mean missing a new one, perhaps a radical supporter of Musharraf. Secondly, canceling or postponing the elections would be a disaster. Bhutto’s party still stands, and can carry on her work. To postpone the elections yet again would fly in the face of democracy, and I am positive that it is not what Bhutto would have wanted. It also lends credibility to something another former prime minister said this morning, Nawaz Sharif, whose party will boycott the elections. "Free elections are not possible in the presence of Musharraf. Musharraf is the root cause of all problems." The only credibility Musharraf has this morning comes from the fact that Bhutto was shot in Rawalpindi. The president canceled a rally she was to hold there a month ago, citing security concerns.

One man who does have credibility on the subject is US Senator Joe Biden. I hate to turn such a sad event as murder into a political football, but when the stakes are this high – Pakistan is an unstable, nuclear-armed Islamic nation but also a key US ally – I feel I have no choice. Biden is the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and a Democratic candidate for President. When Pakistan descended into chaos under Musharraf’s emergency rule in November, the first US politician Musharraf and Bhutto each called was not President Bush, but Senator Biden. Days earlier, just before that crisis began, the Democratic candidates were asked at a debate about the threat posed by Iran. Biden warned that Pakistan poses the real threat, not Iran, and said that we need to be paying more attention. This was not the first time he has shown such foresight – on Sept. 10, 2001, Biden warned that terrorists would attack soon, and possibly from "the belly of a plane." But Biden moves forward, he does not rely upon the I-told-you-so-card. As the November crisis erupted, he released a detailed proposal for dealing with Pakistan, most of which I agreed with. It was certainly a clear and much-needed shift away from the failed Bush strategy. Already today, the Huffington Post has an article titled, “Pakistan Crisis Makes The Case For Biden, Not Bush or Hillary”.

Today, not as a candidate for President but as Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Biden released a statement about Bhutto’s death and held a quickly assembled press conference in Des Moines, Iowa. A rough, short video is available now, and something longer of higher quality with a sharper image should come out later today. Here’s the video, with the statement at the end of the post:

Biden is the only candidate fit to lead on Pakistan. In August, Obama made some very disturbing and uninformed remarks about Pakistan. As First Lady, Clinton dealt with Musharraf, but only in a social context. She does not have the long-standing political and diplomatic relationships with world leaders that Biden has. Edwards has no foreign policy experience whatsoever, not even the four years as a Foreign Relations Committee backbencher that Obama can claim.

Like I say, I hate to turn this kind of an event into a political football, but in times of crisis, competent leadership is needed, and that’s what Joe Biden and Joe Biden alone offers.

"This is a terrible day. My heart goes out to Benazir Bhutto’s family, friends and followers.

"Like her father before her, Benazir Bhutto worked her whole life – and gave her life – to help Pakistan become a democratic, secular and modern Muslim country. She was a woman of extraordinary courage who returned to Pakistan in the face of death threats and even after an assassination attempt the day of her return, she did not flinch. It was a privilege to know her these many years and to call her a friend.

"I am convinced Ms. Bhutto would have won free and fair elections next week. The fact that she was by far Pakistan’s most popular leader underscores the fact that there is a vast, moderate majority in Pakistan that must have a clear voice in the system. Her assassination makes it all the more urgent that Pakistan return to a democratic path.

"This fall, I twice urged President Musharraf to provide better security for Ms. Bhutto and other political leaders – I wrote him before her return and after the first assassination attempt in October. The failure to protect Ms. Bhutto raises a lot of hard questions for the government and security services that must be answered.

"I know that Benazir’s followers will be tempted to lash out in anger and violence. I urge them to remain calm – and not play into the hands of the forces of destruction. I urge Pakistan’s leaders to open a fully accountable and transparent investigation. We must find out who was behind this and bring those responsible to justice. And the United States should offer any assistance necessary, including investigative teams, to get to the bottom of this horror.

"The way to honor Benazir Bhutto is to uphold the values for which she gave her life: democracy, moderation and social justice. I join with the Pakistani people in mourning the loss of a dear friend.”

Update 6:07pm EST: I have replaced the short clip from the press conference with the full video of the entire thing. I would also like to clarify that I am not suggesting Bhutto was like MLK or RFK in her vision or admirability; only that her assassination is having the same effect on the people of Pakistan that those assassinations had on Americans. As one commenter observed, 2007 in Pakistan is like 1968 in Amerca. End update.

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