Thursday, January 03, 2008

Can Benazir's Foreign Friends Please Stop Masquerading As Journalists?

So a friend of mine, who is intimately aware of Pakistani politics, commented on a post yesterday, saying among other things, "I don't recognize this person [BB] being spoken about in/by the media here [the U.S] *at all*." And it's true. While I'm all for being respectful of someone who recently died, and am completely fine with less than critical assessments of leaders immediately after they die, I think there's a fine line between being respectful and being a revisionist historian. This syndrome, which we can call BWATAM (Benazir Was All That And More), is especially likely to take hold if you (a) went to Harvard with BB and were charmed by her, (b) went to Oxford with BB and were charmed by her, (c) were in the British or American governments and/or legislatures between 1985 and 1995 and were charmed by her, or (d) were in Washington over the last 12 to 18 months and were charmed by her (or her $500,000-a-year lobbyists, same difference).

Look, I'm not trying to be asshole, I'm really not. As I've said before, her death is a tragedy for our country. But it's becoming increasingly difficult to read articles which use her nickname ("Pinky"), and talk about time spent in Bruges, and drinks at the Pierre, without a single reference to her political career. Or articles that take at face value Asif Zardari's assertion that he wasn't returning to Pakistan with BB because "the children ought to have at least one parent at home." Some of you might say: if you have a problem with said articles, don't read 'em. To that, I would retort: it's not my displeasure at the articles themselves per se - people can write whatever they hell they want, after all - but at the fact that the people writing them are writing them as journalists, in respected publications like Newsweek and Slate. They should have some sort of duty to objectivity.

I should emphasize that I have no problem with Westerners thinking the world of her. Why wouldn't they? She was charismatic, eloquent, and intelligent. Moreover, they didn't have to live in the Pakistan during the 1990s, so they never saw the other side of the ledger for themselves. Which, I reiterate, is fine: I'm sure there are millions of people out there of whom I have an incomplete picture but don't yet know it. But journalists/historians/political scientists/others of the same ilk should, in their obituaries and tributes, at least make a passing mention of the following:

1. The rampant corruption of her and her husband - known as Mr. 10% during her second term for the kickbacks he received on almost all government contracts (he was known as Mr. 5% in her first term). The necklaces, the Surrey estates, the apartments in Dubai and the Upper East Side of New York, and godknowswhatelse.
2. The widespread failure of her economic policies in the 1990s.
3. Her authoritarian, undemocratic, and unforgiving nature. Exhibit A is how she simply handed over the PPP - the nation's biggest and only truly national party - to a nineteen year old who doesn't have a college education, can't speak Urdu (let alone Sindhi), and is in way over his head. Exhibit B is how she sidelined and marginalized one of the most talented and brilliant politicians/lawyers in Pakistan, Aitzaz Ahsan, because he dared tread a different path from her vis-a-vis the Chief Justice and Musharraf. Both A and B, by the way, are drawn from the last two months alone. The further you go back in history, the more you'll find.

Again, I'm not trying to be asshole. But you can't be a journalist or political commentator of repute by pretending these traits didn't exist. If you want to grieve for her and Pakistan, that's great: we welcome your sympathy. But don't make her out to be someone she wasn't.

UPDATE: One thing you can't criticize her for is Pakistan's support for the Taliban and our Kashmir policy in the 1990s. Critics of BB point to her time in government and how these two largely unenlightened, unmoderate, and unsuccessful policies either began or were given continued support during those years. To those people, I say: the Army and the ISI controlled our foreign policy, at least insofar as our neighbors were concerned. There is nothing BB could have done. This is a matter of historical fact, not mere opinion.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Here's William Dalrymple in the NYT on a number of the issues raised in this post and in the comments in response to it.


NB said...

You may also want to add the fact that she appointed her husband, Mr Zardari, her minister for investment during her second term, to further enable his 10 percent-ing.

asfand said...

I'm pretty sure she didn't hand over the PPP to Bilawal.

That's what Zardari maintains, anyway. According to him she wanted the PPP to be led by Zardari (which is actually a more damning assessment; that she was handing over power her corrupt and largely scummy husband under whom the party was never going to fully unite).

Anonymous said...

I wish some "journalist" would inquire about their ABUSRDLY LUXURIOUS lifestlye in Dubai while there are tens of thousands of Pakistanis in Dubai working as "slave labor/human donkeys" making $1 a day.

Did the Bhuttos not care about their Pakistani brothers? Did the Bhuttos not notice them working outside in 120 sizzling heat? Did the Bhuttos ever offer these human donkeys a bottle of water or an apple? HELL NO.

Anonymous said...

Saint Benazir

negeen said...

Hi again,

That Slate article was so nauseating that I had to take a break in the middle. (It did however link to a good one by David Warren.) I'm still working up the strength to read those by Galbraith and the rest.

Let me contest your update though (the "One thing you can't criticize her for" part). My understanding (and here, I'm sure, is where I'm revealed to be the phony arm-chair Pakistan-watcher I am) is that Benazir and her Interior Minister Babar *were* behind the Taliban and that they helped these guys to their early successes in and around Qandahar precisely *because* she was sick of the ISI running things in Afghanistan through their client Gulbudin Hekmatyar.

Of course there were major economic gains to be made by getting that country under control and of course Hekmatyar was proving pretty incompetent and disgusting (though clearly only the former mattered). But still, my understanding was that she aided the Taliban to do an end-run around the military-intelligence-complex that had her sidelined and unable to make any real money off of trade with the Central Asian Republics which would require going through Afghanistan.

I'd love to hear your thoughts.

P.S. It's a balmy 34F in Chicago today, so there goes another one of your predictions =)

(To be far, it was below zero yesterday...)

Ahsan said...

hey negeen...

thanks again for your comment. well, i think we're utilizing two different levels of analysis here (esp with regards to the afghanistan but also india/kashmir). my update was aimed more at those people who question her "moderateness" and "liberalness" and "secularness" because the pakistan state during her time in power supported very unmoderate and unliberal and unsecular positions in afghanistan and kashmir. they point and say, "lookie here, she wasn't that moderate after all". my rejoinder to those people would be that she couldn't have abandoned afghanistan and cut off support for the taliban, say, because they were crazy nutters whose idea of entertainment was stoning women who were raped in a football field. the ISI and the army simply wouldn't have allowed it, because of strategic depth/our relations with india. similarly, our kashmir policy was pretty much in their hands too, and any break attempted would have met with fierce resistance.

exacerbating all this was the fact that (a) she was bhutto's daughter (sworn enemy of the armed forces), (b) she was a woman, (c) the americans liked her, and (d) she was liberal and didn't cover her head (all the way). what this meant was that she was on shaky ground the minute she came back to pakistan in the 80s and even shakier ground when she got into power. afghanistan and kashmir were our military's babies, and no way an upstart like her was going to get in the way.

owen bennett-jones has an especially interesting passage on this story, which i'm sure you've read.

good to hear about the weather in chicago! back to the grind house on monday, yes?