What with the president of France jetting off to Luxor to spend Christmas with a supermodel and things looking up in Iraq, 2008 seemed set to be more cheerful than 2007. But the assassination of Benazir Bhutto — possibly marking the beginning of an Islamic nuclear power’s descent into chaos — has already put a sober cast on the normally frivolous end-of-the-year news. It would have been hard to invent a better reminder of how events in faraway countries, of which we once knew little, now affect us directly.
It would also be hard to think of a person in the Muslim world who could possibly have inspired more affectionate and well-informed obituaries. An extraordinarily high percentage of the world’s English-speaking pundits appear to have known Bhutto at Harvard, to have encountered her at Oxford, or to have interviewed her, at some length, the last time they visited Karachi or Rawalpindi. If one read only the encomiums to her bravery and her zest for politics over the past week, it would have been difficult, without knowing anything else about her, to understand why such a person was so hated by so many of her own compatriots.
Yet in retrospect, it is very clear that Bhutto belonged to that not-very-exclusive club of foreign politicians who are admired or respected in the West but bitterly despised by at least a portion of their fellow citizens. The late president of Egypt, Anwar Sadat; the late shah of Iran; and until recently the “moderates” of the Saudi royal family were stellar examples of this phenomenon (though none had anything in common with Bhutto). So was Mikhail Gorbachev, the last general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party.
At one level, it is obvious why we like the Bhuttos and the Gorbachevs of the world while some of their countrymen do not. Their very “Western” qualities, their excellent English or their preference for Scotch whisky, their interest in “doing business with us” (in the Saudi case) or in liberalizing, even democratizing their countries (as in the case of Bhutto) are precisely what some of their compatriots hate most about them. Any Pakistani who sympathizes with Talibani beliefs about women automatically loathed Bhutto. Any Russian who could call himself a Soviet imperialist had plenty of reasons to despise Gorbachev. Equally, any Egyptian who wanted the Israelis wiped off the map had cause to resent Sadat, the man who made peace with them.
But there are other reasons why there might be a division in Western and domestic feelings about certain politicians, particularly when that politician is associated with domestic issues that we either don’t know about, don’t care about or don’t understand. Bhutto, despite her eloquent and sincere defense of democracy on the pages of The Post, was just as well known in Pakistan for the long-standing corruption charges against her and her husband, as well as for encouraging the birth and growth of the Taliban itself during her years as prime minister: Allegedly, she had hoped to make use of the fanatical group’s military success in Afghanistan as a tool in Pakistan’s long struggle with India for regional dominance. To many Pakistanis, even those who didn’t want to see her murdered, these were not insignificant political errors but horrendous, unforgivable, disqualifying blunders.
We didn’t know about these sides of Bhutto’s character, or didn’t remember them, or simply didn’t think them as significant as her democracy rhetoric — just as we didn’t believe the internal collapse of the Soviet economy under Gorbachev had anything like the world-historical importance of the external collapse of the Soviet empire. But many Russians felt the negative effects of the economic crisis far more quickly than they felt the positive effects of better relations with the West. By the same token, many Saudis have never thought that their rulers’ massive import of Western technology and specialists made up for the damage wrought by the House of Saud’s profound corruption and fanatical authoritarianism.
Given the choice, of course I would have preferred to see Bhutto leading Pakistan instead of Pervez Musharraf, let alone Mohammad Omar. Nevertheless, it was a mistake for Western governments to expect too much from her return to Pakistan. It also would have been wrong to invest too much in her leadership, and it is worth remembering all of this in the future — especially when pondering the possible fate of some of Bhutto’s neighbors. How big, for example, might be the gap between the Western perception of Hamid Karzai, the well-spoken, well-meaning, liberalizing president of Afghanistan, and the perception of his countrymen? So far, attention has focused on how Bhutto’s assassination might affect the course of events in Pakistan. My wish, for 2008, is that it not be a harbinger of what is to come elsewhere.