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'The Exile's Return': A Profile of Benazir Bhutto

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Amy Wilentz
Author and Journalist
Friday, December 28, 2007; 1:00 PM

Amy Wilentz, whose recent article in More magazine was one of the last in-depth profiles of Benazir Bhutto -- click here for the full article (.pdf file) -- was online Friday, Dec. 28 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the assassination of Bhutto, her campaign to lead Pakistan and her reflections on the assassinations of her brothers.

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The transcript follows.

Wilentz has written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Time magazine, The New Republic, Mother Jones, Harper's and many other publications. She is the former Jerusalem correspondent of The New Yorker and a long-time contributing editor at The Nation. She is the winner of the Whiting Writers Award, the PEN Martha Albrand Non-Fiction Award, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Rosenthal Award.

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Richmond, Va.: After the accolades because of her horrible death, perhaps you can also talk about this aspect of Ms. Bhutto's legacy (as described, in part, in today's New York Post): "Bhutto was corrupt, divisive, dishonest ... during her years as prime minister, Pakistan went backward, not forward. Her husband looted shamelessly and ended up fleeing the country, pursued by the courts ... but, and finally this, Bhutto may shine as a rallying symbol with a far purer light than she cast while alive."

Amy Wilentz: Bhutto was a complicated figure. All those things The Post calls her were true of her at one point or another in her career as a politician. I'm not sure what divisive means in the context of Pakistani politics but certainly she failed to bring this disparate and somewhat anarchic country together. Her husband was well known for his corrupt ways, and spent eight years in prison without trial for them, before "fleeing the country." If Bhutto shines as a rallying symbol as a martyr, it's because she stood for something in the end and that was secular liberalism.

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Crescent City, Calif.: Sadly, the death of this courageous woman will leave more turmoil and death than resolution and peace, as the finger-pointing ensues and some hand-picked version of our Warren Commission ineptitude and whitewash emerges. Notwithstanding any "official findings," the facts of Musharraf's refusal to provide the protections Ms. Bhutto begged for and that a military junta even existed in "ally" Pakistan are shameful.

In 1999 the U.S. warned Musharraf and his generals against an anticipated coup of the democratically elected government of Nawaz Sharif. Shortly thereafter, President Sharif was overthrown and Parliament disbanded. Two years later, Musharraf extracted $1 billion in bribe money for our right to bombing airspace after Sept. 11. George Bush responded by elevating Mr. Musharraf from general to "president."

From Pinochet in Chile, to the Somoza regime in Nicaragua, to Roberto D'Aubuisson and Arena in El Salvador, to the Shah in Iran, why do we always fall on the side of dictators who rule with the blood of their people on their hands? Somehow, sunshine patriots like Jeanne Kirkpatrick's bald explanation of the difference between our supporting "authoritarian" regimes as opposed to "totalitarian" ones rings hollow, especially upon the killing of another champion of democracy -- who might not have perished if this country had been living its legacy all along.

Amy Wilentz: Well this isn't a particularly Bhutto-focused question, but the reason we've landed on the side of dictators historically is clear: we think -- usually wrongly -- that they can run their countries. And what we want is stability so that business can be carried on with. The U.S. is a country and an economy, not a nice person trying to do good in the world. The reason the U.S. pushed Benazir into believing she could walk back into Pakistani politics in person (rather than from afar) was that the Bush administration perceived, correctly, that their current favored dictator in Pakistan was losing his footing.

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Long Beach, Calif.: I'm sorry for Pakistan's loss -- can you tell us what other moderate intellectuals should be encouraged to run? It seems the majority of the Pakistani people don't like the old-guard politicians (although each has supporters willing to riot to display support) yet we don't hear of bright alternative candidates. Also it seems Musharraf is blaming terrorism -- will he now move against the terrorist-supporting clergy and intelligence units that are making his life difficult? Thanks!

Amy Wilentz: Well, I do like Imran Khan, the former cricketer, sort of, and he seems popular. But it is true, I think, that Pakistanis are fed up with the business of politics as usual -- though you wouldn't know it from the outpouring of emotion for Benazir. Will Musharraf move against the people he's blaming for Benazir's death. I wouldn't bet on it. He has not really been able to, nor has he really wanted to, before this.

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Washington: Hi there. I am confused slightly about Bhutto's past. She and her appointees allegedly stole from the government, yet the people adored her. Was she just the least corrupt of the present and past leadership?

Amy Wilentz: The people didn't all adore her. There was widespread discontent with her return, and many were disgusted by her willingness to enter into a relationship with the disgraced and dictatorial Musharraf. She was less corrupt than those on the ground in Pakistan in part because for nine years in exile, she hadn't been there or in a position to be corrupt. Corruption has been a way of life for Pakistani politicians and it's repugnant.

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Seattle: Thank you for being available to answer these questions. Where are Ms. Bhutto's children, and if they traveled to Pakistan for the funeral, will they be safe?

Amy Wilentz: Good question. Two are at university, one in England and one in America, I believe. The youngest was in Dubai at her mother's home, where her father had come to take care of the daughter and Benazir's ailing mother. Now Asif Zardari, Benazir's husband, did return to Pakistan for the funeral, although he still has corruption charges pending against him there, I believe. I did not see any of the children, although it was reported they would come. As a parent I would not have permitted them to attend the funeral for security reasons.

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New York: Bhutto's history as a leader is complex and, like many of the greatest leaders, marked by milestones and fraught with colossal mistakes. Among the great milestones is her election in 1988, marking her as the first female Islamic leader -- an accomplishment I feel only could have happened in Pakistan and only by a Bhutto. Do you think she has blazed a trail for women to lead in Pakistan or other Islamic countries, or has this opportunity come and gone without ever truly coming to bloom? How do you think her legacy will affect a Pakistan that increasingly has stressed the "traditional" role of women under Musharraf?

Amy Wilentz: The woman question is a very sad one in Pakistan. I feel that because she was a Bhutto, Benazir could do things that other women couldn't and so in a sense blazed a trail -- but not an easy one to follow if you're not a blood Bhutto (and there are other brilliant Bhutto women around, believe me). But she did two reprehensible things, I think. One: she who never covered her head before, either in Pakistan or outside, took up a moderate veil for political reasons (It looked good on her too.). She also agreed publicly, indeed sought out, an arranged marriage, as a 35-year-old woman. I think this was bad, and considering the destruction wrought on her reputation by this husband, whom I believe she came to love, she might as well have married scandalously and for love.

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Jeddah, Saudi Arabia: Shouldn't PPP have boycotted the expected farce election and gone with PML-N?

Amy Wilentz: Yup.

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Ottawa, Ontario: Will the fact that Ms. Bhutto was killed in Punjab cause some sort of internal strife between Sindh and Punjab? Especially in light of the fact that all three major Sindhi leaders, Benazir's father included, were murdered in Punjab?

Amy Wilentz: I don't think so, but you do have a good point, and geographical, tribal and sectarian anger is never far from the surface in Pakistan. Her father's execution doesn't exactly count, somehow.

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Burke, Va.: Bhutto's return was brokered by U.S. Should we now stop getting into affairs of other countries if we cannot back up our words? What kind of example does this assassination set up for the rest of U.S.-allied political figures in trouble-stricken countries?

Amy Wilentz: Well I do hold Bush in part responsible for what happened because she would never have gone back without US. assurances and U.S. persuasions and the whole U.S. intrusion on the Pakistani scene. But that has been the case for at least three decades: we've meddled there, even before they got the bomb and certainly every minute after. And Benazir herself should have realized that the U.S. was no longer so powerful in Pakistan. Osama bin Laden has a higher favorability rating there than Bush and Musharraf put together.

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Madrid, Spain: How would succession work in her party? Could it be fatally weakened? It seems that personality and personal loyalty counts a lot with her, and also with Sharif.

Amy Wilentz: The cult of personality is alive and well in Pakistan. Benazir thrived on it, and-- at least in part -- it was a factor in her assassination. No one in the party can have what Benazir had: public worship. That said, no one in the party will be as hated,either, and no one else could use it as a tool for personal gratification and redemption, as she did. The PPP is huge -- we'll have to wait to see who emerged to control it. Hope it won't be another Bhutto, even if they are a legendary band.

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Monterey, Calif.: Hello, Amy. Thank you for being here on a very difficult day. When Ms. Bhutto announced her intention to return to Pakistan, and particularly when the "state of emergency" was declared, I feared that her risk had potentially entered into the realm of self sacrifice. I wish she had left to return and fight another day. Why didn't she?

Amy Wilentz: How could she leave? It would have been too weak. To return, come under attack, and then quit the scene? Unimaginable for Benazir, although she did go back to Dubai for a weekend after the initial attack on her -- I believe she was completely freaked. But then she gathered herself up and returned for the emergency rule. She was not one to believe that she would die; her surviving the first attack gave her some kind of hope that she was invulnerable, though she was always worried for her security, and the security of those around her.

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Washington: Obviously Bhutto realized she might be assassinated if she returned to Pakistan, but why would she say that no true Muslim would kill a woman? Did she really believe that would make her safe?

Amy Wilentz: She wanted to say that if she was killed, remember: this person who kills me is no true Muslim!

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Atlanta:: How do you think the PPP will be affected in the next few years without the presence of an apparent Bhutto family leader?

Amy Wilentz: Sadly the PPP could fall apart; there are several factions within it, and without Benazir there to control it, who knows? It would be a sad commentary on Zulfiqar Bhutto's legacy if the PPP dissolved.

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Plymouth, Ind.: With three causes of death given in just over 24 hours and all the agendas and factions within the Pakistani government, why should we believe any of the official statements coming from them concerning the investigation, including their claim to have intelligence intercepts proving al-Qaeda involvement?

Amy Wilentz: Believe the original one: she was shot twice, fell into the car, and then was bombed. Believe the reporters who were there.

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Ashburn, Va.: What is the best course of action regarding the elections that should take place within the next few weeks? Should they be postponed or carried out as planned? Thank you.

Amy Wilentz: If I were in charge I would postpone them. They serve no purpose for the moment. The entire political spectrum was radically altered when Benazir stepped in, and now that she's dead, it's spinning out of control. If they are held, and I were the leader of a party, I would certainly boycott. Fortunately, I'm just sitting here at a desk in Los Angeles.

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McLean, Va.: Seems to me that al-Qaeda had the most to gain by her death. Why won't the Pakistani government hunt down bin Laden and his leaders? Seems that they are after Musharraf as well. Why wouldn't he?

Amy Wilentz: Musharraf is up to his eyebrows in dealings with the fundamentalist warlord types along the Afghan border. If al-Qaeda gained by her death, so, perhaps he imagined, would he. He's been in a very tight spot for along time, juggling the Americans (with all their money), the Islamists with their arms and agenda, and then this -- to him -- bizarre secularist liberal fantasy of Benazir and civil society (the lawyers, the judges) in Pakistan. Don't know if the Qaedists stand with Musharraf or against him, but all of that will play out now that Benazir is gone.

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Delray Beach, Fla.: I (and I am sure other Americans) am angry at this news. First of all, we do not understand -- even after reading paper after paper about Islam and the different factions -- how a religion continues to dictate the affairs of a country, how murder is used as a political tool, and how basically ignorant of any thought process a significant number of its people continue to operate. I wish that the press would stop encouraging magical thinking in that Pakistan can achieve a any concept of democracy. How long do you estimate it would take for Pakistan to achieve any semblance responsible government with the mixed bag of radicals present today? And if you have an answer, how is it to be done?

Amy Wilentz: Um. Religion has dictated the affairs of this country, in a manner of speaking, since and before its founding. Murder has been used here in the States as a political tool: let's see -- JFK, MLK, RFK, Malcolm X. Need I speak to the comment about the people being basically ignorant of any thought process? India has a semblance of democracy -- and Pakistan has also had one in the past. It's our recent meddling in Pakistani affairs that has added to the continuing mess there. To get Bhutto back in on her own terms, we had to encourage Musharraf to ignore the laws and Constitution of Pakistan.

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Stafford, Texas: So if you agree with the original version, as related by reporters on the scene, why are different stories coming out, and who would be the driving force behind this? Perhaps government security forces with guns at the doctor's head?

Amy Wilentz: In my estimation, we will never know who killed Benazir Bhutto. The murderers' identities would lead to too many known figures. That's why there was a gun used (to make sure she died, this times) and then a suicide bomb, to hide the identity of the shooter. (although I did hear reports that there was a Dallas-like shooter shooting from on high, but I doubt it).

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Trenton, N.J.: How important is the U.S. diplomatic hand in shaping the results of Pakistan's elections next month in the near future of the nation?

Amy Wilentz: The gun that was pointed at Benazir's head was also targeting the U.S. A clear message was being sent: We will thwart you. And frankly, I would say that the U.S. has made mistake after mistake, so it's hard for me to say what now they can do diplomatically in Pakistan. They still have lots of money to give Musharraf if he behaves as they want him to. But I'm not sure that any behavior on the part of Musharraf can keep him in power for much longer. This death also discredits him, and further illegitimates his already decrepit regime.

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Alexandria, Va.: I just want to say how shocked and saddened I am over Ms. Bhutto's death. I am in disbelief that this happened to her, and hope the Pakistani people who supported her are aware that there are countless others around the world who share in their grief and loss.

Amy Wilentz: I can't believe it happened either, although what world event was more predictable? I'm sure the Pakistani people know that the world is watching them, and that many feel grief and concern over the loss.

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Moses Lake, Wash.: What should be the response of world leadership at a crucial moment in political transition in Pakistan? It would not be a surprise if Pakistan declared martial law and once again initiated an emergency clamp-down in response to nationwide riots that are already in progress. How can the U.S. best support Pakistan in these extremely tense hours and days following this crisis? Or should we mind our own business?

Amy Wilentz: The Supreme Court that Musharraf dismissed during the emergency -- and the former chief justice -- should be reinstated immediately. All presidential orders that contravene the Constitution and that remain in place should be lifted. A new firm date should be set for elections. The U.S. should demand that all of this be fulfilled pronto and publicly.

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Stamford, Conn.: This changes the world more than anyone realizes. The political assassinations in Lebanon and Pakistan will tell corrupt leaders that they can kill their opponents with impunity. Unless answered very, very, harshly, expect dictators to use assassination even more a tool to retain power.

Amy Wilentz: How do you answer an assassination? Terror is very complicated, and responding, very thorny. Look at our idiotic and unresponsive response to the attacks of Sept. 11. Who do you go after? How is the U.S. to respond harshly, very harshly, to Benazir's assassination? You are right that assassination is a dastardly tool, and so effective. Look at the killing of Yitzhak Rabin, too. And Hariri. The problem is extremism. I always say that moderates, in order to survive, have to use extreme methods otherwise the extremists will defeat the moderates: But the problem is, once the moderates start using extreme methods, they become indistinguishable from the extremists, and then what have you got?

It's a good question, anyway.

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Arlington, Va.: What role does ethnic politics play in Pakistan -- is it significant that Bhutto was from Sindh province, and that Musharraf is a Punjabi?

Amy Wilentz: Ethnicity is very powerful in Pakistan, and there are tribes with tribes and clans within clans. I am sure that their different origins play into the problems between Benazir and Musharraf, but more important, I believe, is the fact that she was a civilian politician, and he a general in the Pakistani Army.

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Cambridge, Mass.: What is your gut instinct about which group(s) were responsible for the assassination? It is possible that there was any complicity in this act by the U.S. government or a rogue/covert faction thereof? I would imagine the CIA is as active in Pakistan as in any area of the world. Is that a fair guess? Thank you.

Amy Wilentz: My gut instinct is that it was the intelligence people, the fundamentalist wing of the ISI ... in collusion with their friends in the Army; I would not be quick to assume that Musharraf green-lighted this. It puts him in a very bad situation. Yet, he must have wished to be rid of her. Certainly that's how he's behaved ever since she set her feet back down on Pakistani soil.

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Pakistan: The comment by Delray and others over the past 24 hours reflects a deeply flawed view of South Asia. One that is wholly dependent on a jaundiced perspective entirely fashioned here, in the U.S. Earlier today a colleague of Bhutto's essentially scoffed at the idea that the Bush or Brown possibly could help, and that indeed, trusting them would be a profound -- and in this case deadly -- mistake. Commentators on television have not done much in the past years to fully express the complexity of Pakistan's political and social structures, particularly the failure through the decades of her existence to improve substantially the infrastructure that would help to bind the nation together and create a stable economy. At this point, it seems that if it weren't for the animosity towards India, Pakistan simply and finally would fall apart at its tenuous seams -- a point that through the years has been the one thing that Pakistan's leaders, particularly the military ones and especially Musharraf (he of the Kargil incursion -- have exploited. Pakistan is on a precipice and it sadly may be the next to fall into the oblivion that is Afghanistan.

Amy Wilentz: Thanks for this. I very much agree with your points. Of course Bhutto's people will now scoff at the idea that Bush can help them!! Look where that help got them.

It would have been wiser -- or at least, more honest and useful for Pakistan -- for Benazir to have plunged back into Pakistan without the "assist" from Bush, but I think even Benazir did not have that much courage.

Too bad Pakistan since Jinnah has not had a leader who could put the country together again ... maybe Bhutto could have done it this time around, although I fear she was already too compromised and had failed too badly and publicly on the first two go rounds. But still, I believe compromise is of the essence for any serious politician.

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Chicago: All your suggestions, like asking Musharraf to this or that, indicate somehow that the president of Pakistan is some employee of the U.S. Why would Musharraf want to quit now? After Bhutto, isn't he the only savior?

Amy Wilentz: He's no employee of the US. But that's what countries do, don't they? They ask other countries to do things. They tell other leaders what they'd like to see. They give money based on behavior. He doesn't have to do anything the US tells him, as he has shown.

I think Musharraf has shown he is not the new savior. Wish he had been, though.

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Karachi, Pakistan: To correct the poster from Arlington, Musharraf is not Punjabi. He is ethnically Indian. (He was born in New Delhi and his family moved to Pakistan after the country was created in 1947). He is considered a "mohajir" or immigrant.

Amy Wilentz: That's right. I'd forgotten. But to say "immigrant" to an American audience doesn't make sense of the early Pakistani situation, no? He's an immigrant, as were hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis who arrived in the country just after partition...

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Amy Wilentz: Thanks everyone. Especially thanks to those who posted from Pakistan.

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