After Bhutto: whoever wins, the West has lost

The panicky reactions to the killing of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan reveal how the US and its allies are losing the ‘war on terror’.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

The killing of former Pakistan premier Benazir Bhutto in a terrorist attack sparked a widespread panic attack in the West. Analysts variously warned that Pakistan was going up in flames of political and communal violence, or that a new military dictatorship was about to cause disaster by cracking down, or even that Pakistan was in danger of becoming a fundamentalist Islamic state with nuclear weapons. And almost all expressed horror at the consequences of Bhutto’s death for America’s anti-al-Qaeda strategy in such a key region.

These panicky reactions show how the West is losing its ‘war on terror’ – not because of the strength of its enemies, but because of its own loss of authority and control. For more than six years, since the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, the self-styled ‘war on terror’ has been the central plank of US and Western foreign policy. Much of it has been focused on the region that incorporates Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran. Yet one relatively small-scale terror attack in Pakistan that kills a single opposition politician appears to have thrown the entire strategy into confusion.

The kneejerk reactions to Bhutto’s death also gave a glimpse of what Western leaders mean when they talk about exporting democracy to the developing world. For many Western politicians, commentators and headline-writers, the immediate response suggested that her assassination marked ‘the death of democracy’. How could the murder of one unelected opposition politician, however important, be seen as the death of democratic politics? Because for the authorities in the West, ‘democracy’ in a country like Pakistan means not empowering the people, but installing a more publicly acceptable form of authoritarian rule to ensure some stability and security. In essence, if the West’s favoured candidate wins, it’s a healthy democracy. If not, then democracy can be pronounced dead.

And Benazir Bhutto was certainly the chosen candidate of the international community more than the Pakistani people. One British tabloid newspaper slightly bizarrely described her, in language they no doubt thought their readers would understand, as ‘Pakistan’s Princess Diana’. As it happens, Bhutto was more of a princess than a democratic politician in her attitude to the Pakistani people, with a record of trying to rule by personal whim as she saw fit during her two spells as prime minister. She had recently done a shady deal with the military regime to return to Pakistan and have the corruption charges against her shelved. In return, she was trying to reach a compromise deal to form a governing alliance with President Musharraf – her supposedly deadly enemy.

If Bhutto was a princess, her Pakistan People’s Party was more a monarchical dynasty than a political movement. Since her death, the leadership has simply been handed down to her teenage son – a student at Oxford University – with his father acting as a sort of regent until he completes his studies. Inevitably, the family infighting over the dynastic succession to the throne quickly started in earnest.

What political choices were the Pakistani people to be offered at the election in which Bhutto was campaigning against Musharraf? Essentially it was a choice between two Western-created candidates and supporters of the ‘war on terror’ standing on their personal status with no distinctive policies for the future of Pakistan. Since her death, the debate between the two camps has descended into a farcical-sounding argument about exactly how she died – not why, or for what cause. It is as if the electorate is now being asked to vote according to whether they believe Bhutto was killed by a bullet or a bang on the head. Such is the state of democratic politics in Pakistan today.

Both sides of the electoral contest are characterised by their alienation from the masses. Like Musharraf and any other representative of the modern Pakistani elite, Bhutto’s power depended more on her connection with the international community. Immediately after the election rally at which she was killed, she was apparently due to meet with US politicians to hand over a dossier alleging that Musharraf’s government was planning to fix the forthcoming polls – effectively looking to Washington to decide who was fit to govern Pakistan. It is no surprise that the UN, the EU and Scotland Yard have all been called upon by her supporters to help investigate her death.

There was certainly fury over Bhutto’s killing, especially in her tribal stronghold of Sind province. Despite the lurid headlines in the West about Pakistan being ‘ablaze’, however, the actual scale of the violent outburst seemed relatively minor by the standards of past political and communal rioting in the sub-continent. The death of 30 people in the initial rioting looks less dramatic than the death toll in Kenya following the electoral crisis there. The fact that the targets for the crowds’ anger in Pakistan included everything from banks and foreign fast food outlets also suggests the confused state of the popular reaction to Bhutto’s death.

Such is the isolation now of the pro-Western middle classes in Pakistan, and the fragility of the ‘democracy’ they cling to, that the entire system can be thrown into crisis by a single terror attack. Trapped between the demands of the West in the ‘war on terror’ and the antipathy of the masses, the Pakistani elite has little prospect of establishing stability. The only hope one Pakistani journalist writing in the International Herald Tribune could offer was that the assassination might stop the ‘sham’ elections and allow educated lawyers and judges to run the country instead of the unruly mob. Some democratic alternative.

If anything, America faces even bigger problems post-Bhutto. The empty shell of the Pakistani state and the political vacuum at its heart are products of the ‘war on terror’. As I argued on spiked during Musharraf’s recent state of emergency, in the six years since the USA led the invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11, the instability has been spread to Iraq and now to Pakistan. Each foreign intervention designed to assert control only makes matters worse, with the West apparently having perfected the art of creating its own worst enemies.

So Washington, and its supporters in Whitehall, staked everything on maintaining Musharraf and the Pakistani military in power as key allies in the ‘war on terror’, at the risk of further alienating the masses. When it became clear that had failed, the Americans used their considerable economic and political leverage over Pakistan to press the president and Bhutto to do some sort of power-sharing deal. Now that Bhutto is no longer there to provide the democratic façade for such an arrangement, the USA has been effectively left with no strategy in a region it has made central to its global strategy.

Whoever claims victory in the elections when they are eventually held, it already seems clear that the West and its allies lost their grip on the masses a long time ago, and that instability will continue. Back in 1991 at the end of the first Gulf War, when I was editor of Living Marxism magazine, we ran a front page declaring ‘How the West has lost’, even as the US-UK coalition was celebrating its military victory. Our point was that such imperialistic intervention in the developing world was sowing seeds of widespread antagonism towards the Western powers. Those seeds are now coming to fruition in places like Pakistan.

Contrary to what was suggested in the panicky reactions to Bhutto’s death, Pakistan is probably not about to go up in flames, turn into a fundamentalist state or become a rogue nuclear power. Al-Qaeda is no mass movement, and the fundamentalists have no more vision of the future to offer the Pakistani people than the mainstream politicians. But there is a deep-seated antagonism to the West and its allies, as incoherent as the burning down of a KFC outlet, among many who have effectively, if passively, gone over to the other side in the war. Neither Musharraf nor Bhutto, or any other representative of the isolated Pakistani elite, is in any position to pull them back. That is why the entire state, and the wider ‘war on terror’, can suddenly be destabilised by a single bullet, bomb, or bang on the head.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume argued that General Musharraf’s crackdown on ‘uncertainty’ is another product of the West’s unravelling ‘war on terror’. Brendan O’Neill interpreted an India/Pakistan stand-off over Kashmir also as an effect of the ‘war on terror’. James Heartfield said Musharraf was Mau-Mauing the US flak-catcher. Dolan Cummings got the sense that Musharraf was caught up in someone else’s war. Or read more at spiked issue Asia.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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