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A lady is murdered

Tom Plate (Pacific Perspectives)
Filed on December 30, 2007

PERHAPS it was the ever-present white scarf, wrapped around her head, as if shouting to us that a woman in her particular culture might not have it so easy, especially if she wanted to change things.

Or perhaps it was the simple drama of history exerting a powerful pull that was tugging her back from exile to her native Pakistan, even as the severe dangers of such a return seemed daily more evident. Or perhaps the tense and ultimately tragic saga of Benazair Bhutto, facing political crisis in her homeland, attracted America's attention precisely because of its own impending need to make a major political decision about a high-profile woman of ambition.

Whatever the reason, the sound of the pistol bullets that have left Bhutto dead have resounded all over the world and not the least here in the United States. The Bhutto assassination is a big American news story bigger than almost any story out of Asia in recent memory.

Even President George Bush, at vacation rest, again, was required to slough off evident fatigue and emerge from retreat to express official sorrow in front of media cameras. And this was over the assassination of a woman who is not now even in the Pakistani cabinet, and indeed, has not been in power for more than a decade.

So, why all the fuss about Bhutto? To offer some perspective, please understand that most Americans know very little about nuclear-powered Pakistan. But we had better start learning: After all, American tax money, to the tune of $25 billion since 9/11, has been helping keep in power that country's "President", Pervez Musharraf, a military man. The public panic from the 9/11 terrorist attacks convinced Washington that support for the military strongman who seized power in 1999 was essential to the new "war on terror." What's surprising is that so little of this is widely known here. Yet the suicide-bombing assassination of Bhutto has swept across America as story number one.

Here is my best guess: Americans are increasingly interested in the topic of the prospect or reality of women in power. For many here, the Bhutto story is about a woman of power more than about the internal politics of Pakistan.

After all, there aren't that many women of power around the world for us to study. In Argentina there is new President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. Her comely picture appears just about every second or third day in American publications. Perhaps they are thinking of her as the new Evita. German Chancellor Angela Merkel gets some Western Press, though not as much as Fernandez, perhaps because she is not as photogenic, though Germany is more important than Argentina.

Elsewhere in Asia, there is President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the 14th president of the Philippines and the country's second woman leader (Cory Aquino, 1986 to 1992, was the first). Like Benazir Bhutto, when she was last prime minister (1993-96), Arroya has been hit with corruption allegations, too.

The Bush administration was aware of the negative talk about Bhutto but was desperate to fix the leaking dam that has become Pakistan. Musharraf has been losing a lot of legitimacy inside and outside the country with the sacking of Supreme Court judges and the widespread jailing of lawyers and journalists.

The opposing Pakistan People's Party, with Bhutto returning from exile, suddenly offered a way for Washington to hedge its Pakistan bet should Mursharraf's government come apart. The quick-drying glue of an externally imposed coalition regime would be slathered on Pakistan to seal the government from further sliding and perhaps even falling into the hands of you-know-what kind of people. Bhutto, whether in alliance with Musharraf or not, was supposed to be Plan B, but now Benazir is no more.

Benazir was murdered by an extremist madman, while Musharraf watched many miles away. Could he have done more to prevent it? Under the circumstances, that does not seem an unfair question to ask. She always doffed that headscarf, to be sure, but she was no madam of the madrassas, the term we in the West use to describe those controversial Islamic religious schools. She had been educated at Radcliffe and Harvard (majoring in comparative government, a rather useful subject-matter in Asia), had topped it off with a fancy degree from Oxford, and so was generally regarded as one smart cookie.

And in recent months, her PPP looked to be gaining sympathy in Pakistan since hardly anyone trusted the Musharraf government (and some of those who openly expressed their distrust wound up in jail.) And so in the world's eyes, there was the US, with all its oft-proclaimed ideals about democracy, once again in bed with a military strongman because of the crisis of the moment: the so-called war on terrorism. It would be no surprise if Bhutto had been making General Musharraf very uncomfortable indeed. But now, no more.

Prof. Tom Plate, a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy, teaches Asian politics and media at the University of California at Los Angeles.

2004, Tom Plate


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