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Bhutto Backlash

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Today's assassination of Benazir Bhutto will surely reverberate all the way to Iowa and New Hampshire. Her death not only has long term consequences for Pakistan's future, but will impact the presidential race at home since it will compel Republican and Democratic candidates to shift attention away from domestic issues to highlight their relative foreign policy experience as the world focuses on Bhutto's murder, and on Pakistan -- one of the most dangerous and unstable countries in the world.

During the coming days in the minds of many voters surely "experience" will trump "change" as Americans grapple with the unfolding tragedy and its potential impact on American national and homeland security.

Insofar as Pakistan is concerned, the only Muslim nation that has nuclear weapons, Benazir Bhutto promised that should her Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) win the upcoming parliamentary elections, she would clamp down on Taliban and Al Qaeda sympathizers that vowed to kill her when she returned from exile on October 18. She leaves no identifiable successor to lead the PPP, and Pakistan today faces the prospect of more internal violence and consequently, more danger to American interests in this volatile region.

What can we expect in the coming days?

    1. Under Muslim law, Bhutto's funeral will likely occur tomorrow, and it may descend into a violent, anti-government protest. President Musharraf will declare several days of official mourning and may reimpose emergency rule, or even declare Martial Law.

    2. Bhutto had many enemies inside Pakistan, including President Musharraf, Islamic extremists parties, Taliban and Al Qaeda sympathizers and opponents within her own party. Which group or groups claim responsibility will determine how the all-powerful Pakistani army reacts to her murder and whether the country will spiral into a sustained period of violence and chaos.

    3. Musharraf himself has been the target of 9 assassination attempts. The ease by which an assassin was able to penetrate Bhutto's security detail illustrates the determination of Pakistan's extremists to kill anyone who is a threat to their anti-democratic agenda. It will also cause many of Bhutto's supporters to point an accusing finger at Musharraf claiming that he intentionally did not provide enough security to Bhutto since she was a political threat to his rule.

    4. For the U.S., the highest priority is whether Pakistan's nuclear weapons will remain under tight lock and key should the country descend into further chaos. The midnight oil will surely be burning in the Situation Room and in the Pentagon as Bush administration officials cope with the assassination's aftermath -- the most important challenge being whether Musharraf will be able to keep control of Pakistan's streets.

Pakistan may be 10,000 miles away from Iowa, but in the aftermath of Bhutto's assassination, events in Pakistan may very well shape the course of the closing days of the campaign.

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