Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Devil Wears Prada

Mark Steyn noted that Benazir Bhutto's return to Pakistan had a certain reckless fatality about it that seemed pre-ordained to lend itself to the unfortunate and bloody conclusion that unfolded on Thursday. Whether Bhutto was a fatalist hell-bent on martyrdom is a point hardly worth debating, and given her opulent lifestyle and craving for all the trappings of aristocracy at the expense of the poor she claimed to champion tends to lay that argument to rest.

What is missing from the debate in both the circles of punditry and public discourse is any sense of context, both in the arrogant assumption that any Westerner knows a thing about Pakistan or even Bhutto herself, and the real legacy of her brief and corrupt reign. The media has reduced the discourse to such astounding levels of banality and ignorance that it is not uncommon to hear some self-professed "Expert on Pakistan" make the sand-poundingly stupid remark that the Bhutto family were Pakistan's version of the Kennedy's. When I first heard the remark uttered by some hawk-nosed pundit with very important hair, I was ready to throw my bag of Doritos at the TV, until it dawned on me (mid Doritos hurl) that the commentator's comparison to Bhutto and the Kennedy's was a back-stage homage at how very skilled Benazir Bhutto had been at seducing Westerners, particularly Europeans, into buying into her own self-created mythology.

To the West, and to adoring pundits, Bhutto was the exiled champion of the poor, ready to risk her own life to return democracy and moderate government to the hands of the people, and $1 jello shooter nights for all (well, maybe not the last one). With her Harvard and Oxford education, designer clothing, Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses, and quick wit, she courted the Western media, re-writing her own history and never being questioned on it because she had carefully crafted her image as a freedom fighter right out Hollywood central casting. She was everything we wanted in a Mid-East leader and she knew it. The problem was that her adoring sycophants in the media never bothered to scratch beyond the shiny surface layers to reveal what lay beneath the expensive clothes and behind the silver tongue.

Bhutto was nothing more than a corrupt opportunist who was ousted from power in 1990 after 19 charges of corruption were filed against her and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, after a New York Times investigation revealed a complex scheme of money laundering, fraud and kickbacks. Some experts allege that by the time she fled the country, or was "exiled" as Ms. Bhutto preferred to call it, she and her husband had stolen over a billion dollars. Her husband spent eight years in prison - the money is still in an unmarked Swiss account.

A champion of the poor she was not. She was an elite from a political dynasty marred by corruption. One of her closest allies during her rule, as the corruption charges swirled around her, begged her to orchestrate some sort of damage control by meeting with those in the poorest regions of Pakistan. "A Prime Minister does not do such things", she coldly responded - and this, perhaps, gives us the best glimpse into the psyche of the lady who signed off her emails with a capital B.

So what are we left with? Poor President Musharraf - who came from poverty, created a middle class in Pakistan, eliminated the massive deficit left behind from the Bhutto years, brought cell phones, the Internet and technology to the masses, and gave the poor hope - is left trying to stabilize an already volatile situation he barely had under control before the nefarious little muck-raker stuck her nose back into to the fray, hoping to one day dip her hand back into the cookie jar. As the tension mounts, his government is forced to beat back ridiculous conspiracy theories that they were to blame for her assassination. It would seem that for President Musharraf, Benazir Bhutto will be a bigger headache in death than she was in life.

Gustave Stresemann once said that Dante can be understood only within the context of Italian thought, and Faust would be unthinkable if divorced from its German background; But both are part of their common cultural heritage. This is also true of Benazir Bhutto and Pakistan. Perhaps President Musharraf should invest in some Gucci loafers and Armani Suits; It may not play well with the poor of Pakistan, but we sure will gobble it up in the West.



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