Pakistani President Asif Zardari is being pressured to leave office in the wake of a high court ruling in Islamabad that strips Pakistan's most corrupt politicians -- led by the great Zardari -- of amnesty.
This poses a dilemma for Washington as the U.S. government seeks to help stabilize Pakistan. The Bush administration helped foist Zardari on Pakistan in the first place, when it thought that Zardari's corrupt and incompetent (But beautiful! And brainy! And Westernized!) wife Benazir Bhutto deserved another crack at redemption.
Benazir was the Sarah Palin of Pakistani politics, a mirage of charisma and crowd-pleasing that belied the contempt most citizens had for her. In the West, she was able to develop a following of sycophants who painted her with a fantastic brush.
Her assassination led to her party proposing that her son, then her husband, to be a successor -- revealing that the Bhutto family was more about dynasty than democracy. But the West still chose to see Zardari as a legitimate representative of democratic interests, though almost no one in Pakistan except those bought off by Zardari would agree.
Zardari was famously known as "Mr. Ten Percent" for his kickback habits during Benazir's reign. Today he is known as positively nuts. As Jemima Khan noted in The Independent over a year ago, "The man who now has his finger on the nuclear button was only last year declared unfit to stand trial in a UK court on account of multiple mental problems.... What is depressing is not that everything now changes with the election of Asif Ali Zardari, but that everything stays the same."
Indeed. Both Bush and Obama have seemed to overlook Zardari's cosmic-scale bumbling, because the only real standard for evaluating Pakistani leaders has been how firmly they publicly commit to military campaigns against extremists. This neglects what the Pakistani street sees as its its true hopes and fears.
As to the "democracy-first" notion that Zardari is a legitimately elected president, he is not; his party merely took advantage of a dysfunctional political system to put him in office.
When most Pakistanis go to local bureaucratic offices and see official portraits of Zardari smiling down on them, they feel anew the sting of American influence. I've often written about how Pakistanis need to overcome their exaggerated grievances and resentments and transcend their culture of victimization. But the latest twist in the Zardari saga shows that, well, sometimes they do have a point.
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