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Benazir Bhutto: Myth vs. Reality

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The West, obsessed with making the rest of the world in its own image, has a fatal flaw when dealing with foreign politics. It tends to elevate anyone in opposition, who claims to be "for democracy," to a level they so often do not justify.

Several African and Asian opposition leaders spring to mind as being little better than thugs or despots-in-waiting, but somehow the West overlooks these character defects and touts them as wing-heeled bringers of democracy.

Benazir Bhutto was often given a shining democracy crown to wear, and happy she was to grab it. Her father was the progressively secular Prime Minister Ali Bhutto. His socializing programs gave Pakistanis a deep sense of self in the late 60s until it went bad and he was executed on trumped up charges in 1979. As his daughter she was the recipient not only of a political party her family considered their personal property, but of an automatic credibility - hers to build, hers to destroy.

Benazir was beautiful, smart and West-friendly. She always looked as if she was paying lip service to wearing hijab, and countered it with lots of makeup and fancy clothes. She was a Muslim woman we thought we could do business with. In 1988, at just 35 she became first democratically elected Muslim woman prime minister in the world. She spoke of liberating Pakistani women but she breath-takingly failed to make any inroads at all in women's equality. Surprisingly she never repealed the medieval Hudud and Zina laws that have extreme punishments for women accused of extra-marital or pre-marital sex and heinous and unthinkable laws about rape. (Zina was finally repealed by by Pervez Musharraf in 2006. Hudud , with revisions, still stands.)

Despite her anti-Taliban stances towards the end of her life, in her term in office she assisted the Taliban, then welcomed their taking of Afghanistan, and publicly opined that they would stabilize the country. Of course, she may just have been hoping for peace in the neighborhood by any means necessary, but her approval smacked of expediency, or ignorance and a less than democratic outlook.

Many in the West felt that the corruption charges that kept on swirling around Bhutto and her husband Asif Ali Zadari were, to paraphrase Hillary Clinton, a vast government conspiracy to destroy her political ambitions. Bhutto continued to plead innocence and claimed that all evidence was concocted. She even accused European banks of being in on the conspiracy, "Why would the Swiss do this to me?" she wailed. "Maybe the Swiss are trying to divert attention from the Holocaust gold scandal."

For her many flaws, she was enormously brave. You cannot for a moment imagine that she did not know she had a target almost tattooed over her heart. What would motivate someone to go so far out on a limb that attempted or successful assassination was a foregone conclusion? Was it love of her country, a sense of destiny, or a fatal flaw?

Al Qaeda gleefully boasted they had killed her. Al Qaeda is so scattered and so fractured in Pakistan it could have been any of its off-shoots and today there is still conjecture over who really killed Benazir Bhutto. (The UN has this week promised an investigation into her assassination).

It is hard not to look back at those months leading up to her death when Bhutto came out of exile without some sense of lost optimism. Bhutto was attracting huge crowds - and as she always had done - promised a new beginning, a revolutionized Pakistan. She would be the steady oar, the non-military leader who was not beholden to the Machiavellian ISI, the Pakistan internal intelligence agency, widely regarded as having its own agenda, being corrupt and dangerous. She always looked forward, represented hope, and made millions feel that Pakistan could be a modern, progressive state.

Today Pakistan is an economic basket case, saved from ruin by an IMF bailout. It is rattling sabers with India over Kashmir, and weathering criticism over its lack of action on terrorist havens within its borders. Throw the fact that it's a nuclear power into the mix and you start to get just a wee bit nervous.

How does one person deal with this? Could Benazir Bhutto - for all her bad judgments, miscalculations and errors - so often conveniently overlooked by those desperate for change in Pakistan - have made any difference to the situation Pakistan finds itself into today? We will never know.