Slate and Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum was online on Washingtonpost.com on Thursday, Jan. 3, to discuss the Western world’s admiration for Benazir Bhutto and the opposite feelings she inspired in Pakistan. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.
Anne Applebaum: Good afternoon everyone—or rather good evening, since where I am (Warsaw, Poland) it’s already dinner time and, this being January, the sun set several hours ago. I’m looking forward to being brightened up by your questions though—many thanks in advance, AA
Bethesda, Md.: To me, your main point was that we need a broader, more informed perspective on foreign countries and their leaders. As you know, this kind of knowledge exists many times over in our bureaucracy, let alone in the think tanks and academia. Why doesn’t it have more influence on the people at the top? And though this problem has been much worse under Bush, it still exists in other administrations.
Anne Applebaum: You are absolutely right about the “it exists in many administrations” part of it—Clinton made Yeltsin his best friend, Bush Senior put too much trust in Gorbachev. You are also right about the “plenty of people in the bureaucracy knew plenty about Bhutto” point. I think the problem is partly to do with how White Houses in general absorb and process information: US presidents have so many issues to deal with, it’s hardly surprising that they like to simplify matters by substituting personalities for policy. Their bureaucrats can and do send them dozens of briefing papers, but how much simpler it must seem to talk to the man or woman in charge.
Or maybe it’s something to do with the American character: We’re “people people.” We like face to face agreements, handshakes, that sort of thing.
Richmond, Va.: You know, what I can’t understand is why Mrs. Bhutto’s son (spurred on by her husband, who has a horrific record of corruption) would be any less volatile (and open to harm) than Mrs. Bhutto herself. In other words, these dynastic families have been accused of (and served time for) all sorts of malfeasance, and still, incredibly, are revered persons, at the head of an “opposition” party, but who are no better in many ways than those who take over by force. Democracy in Pakistan seems to have different meanings than what I know.
Anne Applebaum: The dynastic issue is one worth discussing, particularly as we should be paying more attention to this in American politics. I reckon political dynasties function something like international logos—they are a shortcut, a form of instant recognition. One knows what one will get, sort of, with the Bhuttos, or the Clintons. But they are, as you point out, deeply undemocratic, and can hide all kinds of individual flaws. Not all of the qualities of Mahatma Gandhi were passed to his daughter, but she somehow got credit for them anyway.
Rochester, N.Y.: Anne, many of your fellow journalists have written touching remembrances of Ms. Bhutto, her early days at Harvard and Oxford, and her indomitable spirit. Did you know her personally? Was she as charming and courageous as these accounts suggest?
Anne Applebaum: I did meet her once, in London, when she was prime minister, probably more than ten years ago. She was by that point imposing and extremely formidable—very large, draped in silks, surrounded by bodyguards, heavily made up, very forthright and direct. As it happened—this was reception—I asked her about the Taliban, something I only remember because of the way she cut me off rather abruptly, claiming she was fighting them as hard as she could—which was, others tell me, not true.
I did not know her in her Oxford days though when I was studying there a few years later, she remained an almost legendary figure, so totally had she dominated the Oxford Union, the university’s political debating club. She was certainly an extraordinary person.
tropicalfolk: This is a very good article by Anne Applebaum. However, there’s one big point that Ms. Applebaum missed: For several years, Benazir Bhutto was actively lobbying the Washington establishment (she even hired a professional lobbyist) in order to get the support she needed to return to Pakistan as a savior. The media frenzy about Bhutto’s assassination has made many people lose sight of the complex negotiations that took place before she returned to Pakistan.
So, the U.S. agreed to force Bhutto down the throat of Pakistanis, and forced Musharraf to let her land in Pakistan and give her the Prime Minister post. What did Bhutto promised Condi Rice in exchange? It sounds a lot like those Iraqi exiles who assured Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney that American troops would be greeted with songs and flowers in Iraq. Bhutto embodied a corrupt global system that works behind the scenes on behalf of obscure interests.
Anne Applebaum: This is true—but Bhutto was not the only person to have lobbied the Washington establishment in the past few years, or to have hired a professional lobbyist. The fact that she and not some of the others persuaded the administration to help her had, I think, a lot more to do with a kind of growing desperation about what to do about Pakistan.
Re: “people people”: You write “We’re ‘people people.’ We like face-to-face agreements, handshakes, that sort of thing.” With all due respect, isn’t this just Stephen Colbert-style silliness? And isn’t the job of (supposed) foreign policy experts like you to try to move past this rather than to wallow in it?
Anne Applebaum: Actually no—I think it’s my job to point it out. It’s one of the things that makes American diplomacy different, for example, from the French version.
McLean, Va.: Why is western media trying to paint Bhutto as a saint when she was nothing close to that? In reality she was a corrupt politician, who should have been tried. I am a Pakistani and I think that her family should return $1.5 billion that she and her husband looted back to the country. Thanks.
Anne Applebaum: I don’t think she’s exactly being painted as a saint, but it is true that her articles and speeches about bringing democracy to Pakistan have impressed a lot of people over the years. And since, from our American point of view, her views on democracy are more important than her family’s corruption, we don’t pay any attention to the latter whatsoever. Which is wrong, obviously, as I said in my original column.
Freising, Germany: I’ve been reading for a while that free and fair elections in Pakistan would help curb the influence of extremists and Taliban connected militants. After the brutal bombing during Benazir Bhutto’s homecoming parade and her subsequent assassination, I wonder if the genie hasn’t been let out of the bottle in Pakistan, and that more than fair elections will be required to contain, circumvent or decrease the violent intentions of the militants. Have you heard any plausible strategies for Pakistan, or is it still too early to tell what influence the assassination will have?
Anne Applebaum: I would be careful about implying that democratic elections have ‘let the genie out of the bottle’ and destabilized a previously stable regime. Usually it is undemocratic systems that create frustration, militancy and fanaticism, the true sources of instability. Of course more than fair elections will be needed now to contain them, but reverting to an authoritarian status quo won’t necessarily help either.
New York: Indira Gandhi was Nehru’s daughter, not Mahatma Gandhi’s! But anyway, I liked your rather nuanced piece. I’m in Pakistan right now, and it seems Bhutto did no wrong, ever. I dread Zardari’s coming in. There’s a good piece in the New Yorker about Benazir Bhutto’s contradictions. I do think that the idea one gets of B.B. from within the country is very different from the one one gets from without. And I am sorry, but going to Harvard and Oxford doesn’t make her a better person, stateswoman or leader. She ran the country like a fiefdom, the corruption charges against Zardari are not baseless, and many were betrayed by her when she first came to power. She didn’t do enough. She didn’t use her power to do good. She was not the great hero of democracy she was made out to be, especially by Western analysts.
washingtonpost.com: Bhutto and the Candidates(New Yorker, Jan. 7 edition)
Anne Applebaum: OK, to everybody who has now written that Indira was Nehru’s daughter: I did in fact know that, in some part of my brain—I have even read his letters to her from prison, albeit long ago. When one is typing fast, live, one makes mistakes, apologies. This is why the MSM is right to go on about the importance of editors.
And yes, you are right, going to Harvard and Oxford didn’t make her a better person—but it did make her easier for Western elites to understand her and feel comfortable with her. This is not an excuse, it’s an explanation for why her foreign reputation was so much better than the one at home.
Dallas: Did Benazir has say that she would allow NATO to control Pakistani nukes and the Pakistan/Afghanistan border? Musharraf supporters are spreading rumors that she was killed becaused of such promises to the West.
Anne Applebaum: If she did, she didn’t tell me about it. Sounds unlikely, since even if she made such a promise, I’m not sure why anyone would believe that she would keep it.
Midlothian, Va.: How much of the negativity towards Bhutto was related to her being a woman?
Anne Applebaum: I don’t think her feminity was the source of most dislike for Bhutto—from what I understand, her family’s wealth and hints of corruption were far more controversial. Though I’m sure it didn’t help her win many votes among the Pakistani Taliban supporters
Washington: American feminist organizations have been conspicuously silent on Bhutto’s assassination—and her legacy as a woman on the world stage. What do you make of that?
Anne Applebaum: For complicated reasons, bound up with their fear of white/Western imperialism, American feminists are generally very silent on the fate of women especially in “developing” and Muslim countries—even Saudi Arabia. I’ve written about this once or twice in recent columns, but the best essay on the subject was by Cristina Sommers, in the Weekly Standard, a few months ago.
Atlanta: I served in the Embassy New Delhi when Bhutto was Prime Minister, and our general impression was that she was a poor leader, had a tendency to turn on India for political convenience (no matter the danger to peace) and was married to a kleptocrat. Given this, aren’t we well-served by a delay in the elections to cool tension? By the way, Indira was Nehru’s daughter; the Mahatma’s kids generally stayed out of the limelight.
Anne Applebaum: Your assessment matches many that I’ve heard. As I’m not in Pakistan at the moment, I wouldn’t want to comment on whether it would be better or worse to delay the elections—one can imagine quicksand in either direction.
marknesop: Congratulations, Anne, this was a pretty good column. I expected brink-of-tears canonization of Bhutto as some other columns have done; you surprised me. I’m afraid I don’t know Bhutto’s history well enough to contradict you on specifics, but you absolutely are correct that many foreign leaders are adored by the West (Sarkozy springs to mind) while they are not necessarily viewed with such affection by their electorate. Margaret Thatcher personified that philosophy. I still think Bhutto would be an improvement over Musharraf, though. She might lack his tyrannical discipline, but Pakistan must make some kind of break from him soon.
Anne Applebaum: Many thanks, and glad you agree. As to an improvement—at some point, of course, anybody will be better than Musharraf: Nothing is more corrupting, intellectually, politically and financially, than holding power indefinitely. Any leader simply loses the motivation to do good.
Ocala, Fla.: Why is it that the U.S. always seems to play personality politics when we get involved in the internal affairs of other countries? Pakistan is only the latest example. Why don’t we invest in broader movements and grassroots outreach? Is it that we are simply looking for a shortcut, or that we don’t really understand the cultures well enough to do the grassroots work?
Anne Applebaum: To some extent we do invest in broader movements and outreach—it’s called “democracy promotion.” But we tend not to do democracy promotion very well, even when we’re fully focused on it, which isn’t very often. After all, presidents are only in office for a few years, and these aren’t policies that bring instant results, or even that necessarily bring any results. As I said, it must seem to most presidents so much simpler and more direct to do a deal with an actual person.
Washington: Ms. Applebaum, thank you for your article pointing out Benazir’s many huge (and, in the view of a lot of her countrymen) unforgivable mistakes. She painted herself as a fighter for democracy and women’s rights, yet she cut deals with undemocratic elements in her own country and with repressive external regimes like the Taliban. Not to sound cold, but she reaped what she had sown.
Anne Applebaum: Yes—though of course no one deserves to be assassinated.
Freising, Germany: Ms. Bhutto’s husband is sometimes mentioned as having roguish tendencies, and in Pakistan he was known by his nickname, “Mr. 10 Percent.” How much of his reputation is thought to be character damage by rivals, and how much is thought to be truthful?
Anne Applebaum: ah, I’m afraid that completely depends upon whom you ask. It’s that kind of country.
New York: Thanks for this piece. You mention in your article you would have preferred to see Bhutto leading Pakistan, rather than Gen. Musharraf. If you’ve heard Pakistanis say she was rather corrupt, do you think that if she had been elected, at the very best her rule only may have been a temporary solution for Pakistan? We’ll never know now, unfortunately—though perhaps her son and husband will be able to carry a little of her legacy and support forward.
Anne Applebaum: Hard to say—as other questioners have pointed out, she wasn’t necessarily a great prime minister the last time around. The principle that power can and should change hands peacefully is a good one to enforce in any country though.
Anne Applebaum: Looks like time is up—many thanks to all of you, and apologies to the one or two whose questions I didn’t have time to answer. Hope to hear from you all again, AA