The Legacy of Benazir Bhutto
Friday, December 28, 2007; 2:30 PM
Newsweek senior editor Lally Weymouth, who frequently interviews world leaders and spoke to Benazir Bhutto on Dec. 12, was online Friday, Dec. 28 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss Bhutto, her legacy and the upcoming elections in Pakistan.
The transcript follows.
Lally Weymouth: I'm Newsweek's senior diplomatic correspondent and I went to Pakistan two weeks ago and had dinner with Benazir Bhutto at her home in Islamabad. It was the second interview I had done with her since August, the other one being in New York. Both interviews ran in The Washington Post and in Newsweek.
Ottawa, Ontario: Lally, thank you for making yourself available here. You did in-depth interviews with both Bhutto and Musharraf recently. Did you get a sense that the two could work together effectively to create that so-called "moderate center" and counter the steady creep of militancy and fundamentalism in Pakistan, particularly in the regions bordering Afghanistan? I think that Musharraf -- even though he seems slowly to have realized and recognized how a big threat the fanatical extremists really are to him and a politically moderate, stable Pakistan -- is now in such a tight bend with Bhutto's disappearance from the scene that further instability may be the one sure thing to ensue. I say this mainly given Musharraf's total discrediting in the eyes both of the Pakistani people and the international community. My next question, then, is whether you think Nawaz Sharif, despite his crooked, corrupt past, might be the next best leadership hope for the fractured center? Thanks.
Lally Weymouth: I thought that Bhutto was going to win a surprisingly large number of seats in the upcoming January election. She went back to Pakistan intending to work with Musharraf, but as she saw it he did not keep his end of the deal, which was to lift the ban that would have allowed her to serve a third term as Prime Minister. So I think the chance of them working together was slim. She had begun discussions with Nawaz Sharif and he had persuaded her to join him in an alliance. He told me she was reluctant to run, but she told him if they both boycotted, Musharraf wouldn't have to rig the election. So they joined together to win. There was a possibility between the two of them they could have won a large number of seats, although that's dependent on how free and fair the elections would have been.
Sharif seems to be the only one left, but of course I saw yesterday that he withdrew his party from the election, although he already technically had been disqualified by Musharraf.
Raleigh, N.C.: Good afternoon. Given the tradition of dynastic politics in the subcontinent, is there anyone in her family who might pick up the mantle?
Lally Weymouth: Good question, but I think her children are too young.
Tampa, Fla.: Thank you for taking our questions for this sad occasion. I know an investigation is ongoing, but can you discuss where suspicion may fall for Mrs. Bhutto's death? It seems like several groups would have had the motivation to harm her.
Lally Weymouth: The problem is that you're correct, and I think the Interior Minister today blamed al-Qaeda, but obviously there always is going to be suspicion falling on people around President Musharraf, fair or not, because he is the person that benefits the most from her death. She was a huge threat to him and his continued rule.
Richmond, Va.: What did Bush say to convince Ms. Bhutto to return and, because Ms. Bhutto knows how volatile -- prone to assassinations and dangers -- Pakistan is, why would she believe him? Was it out of sheer arrogance?
Lally Weymouth: I don't think President Bush had anything to do with persuading Bhutto to return. I think she had a real dedication to the poor and the deprived and the wretched of her country, and to be honest I think she died for them. She wanted to improve and save her country through democracy. She believe extremism is growing in her country and that a secular government could fight the strength of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. She even told me at dinner that she was worried that they would come to her door, and that Pakistani intelligence services had warned her there would be an attack on her on Dec. 21. I would say that in reference to your remarks about President Bush, the administration did help persuade Musharraf to allow Bhutto to return and to lift the corruption charges filed against her. He did go through with part of the problem, meeting with her in the United Arab Emirates (which she always referred to as "the secret meeting I can't talk about"). Then Saudi Arabia insisted Nawaz Sharif be permitted to come back even though Musharraf turned his plane around. So both alternative candidates were permitted back into the country because of outside pressure.
Musharraf had made the Saudis agree to keep Sharif there for 10 years and I think the Saudis basically decided enough was enough, and the Saudis have a lot of power in Pakistan.
Chicago: All the leaders in Pakistan consider Pakistan to be their personal property. For Benazir, it was a family business/property, which she could not let go until her children were of age. Democracy was simply an instrument to get to power. Corruption was a way to get money to stay in power. All of them want to be rulers for life. Isn't this the reason that most dominant politicians in Pakistan have died?
Lally Weymouth: I have to say I don't agree with you. I think Benazir Bhutto really was concerned about her country. She knew how dangerous it was to return home -- she had no illusions. She told me how shocked she was about the growing strength of the Taliban and al-Qaeda and she blamed Musharraf for that -- she said they only could have recovered from Tora Bora with sympathy from people high in Musharraf's administration. The Pakistani president in the '80s put together a structure to aid and abet the mujaheddin. The militants have reorganized because of this entire system of support. She was shocked to see how embedded this was. Towns have fallen and called for reinforcements and the military would not send them in time and people would be beheaded. Town after town fell to the militants. Bhutto was very concerned about this and believed democratic institutions and free and fair elections where the people's voices could be heard would help. Musharraf has all the judges from the Supreme Court that he fired, they're still under house arrest, despite the lifting of the emergency rule. Instead of arresting militants he has been arresting protesting lawyers. You can't file a case in Pakistan right now because the courts have been completely shut down. It's really and incredible situation in Pakistan right now, and I don't think we in America realize that.
Boston: Watching the Bhutto assassination coverage yesterday this question struck me: Do you think Bush ever thinks back to his debate answer in the 2000 election that the U.S. needs a more humble foreign policy? Does saying Sept. 11 "changed everything" minimize the notion, painfully learned over many decades, that the U.S. has suffered the most damage to its national interests when it believes that it can and should affect strategic and tactical forces in foreign countries/regions it does not truly understand? Why does it feel like we are locked in a deadly jujitsu battle and we are the lumbering giant whose strength is being used against it without us even understanding it? Why aren't we the smart ones using our enemies' strengths against them?
Lally Weymouth: I think that the president had no choice but to go into Afghanistan after al-Qaeda destroyed the World Trade Center. And the bombing of Afghanistan was completely effective -- the Taliban was destroyed and broken. The problem was that they were allowed to regroup in Pakistan. The United States should have used more force with President Musharraf, but he used the arguments that "it's me or nothing" and that it's very dangerous -- which of course it is. Bhutto was completely right about this problem and understood that, and that's why she posed an enormous danger to the extremists, because she was willing to fight them.
elsnera: I notice that Lally Weymouth doesn't do what journalists usually do, which is write a story after conducting her interviews. She just posts transcripts ... why is this?
Lally Weymouth: I just have made a specialty out of interviewing world leaders and I usually have long long transcripts and I have cut them down. I believe you learn a lot from asking the right questions and sometimes getting the right answers. If you read my latest Musharraf interview you can see how much he's changed since my earlier interviews with him. It was an idea of an editor at Newsweek actually, and we think it's worked rather well, but glad to hear your opinion.
Lally Weymouth: Thank you for your questions today. It was interesting talking to you and have a happy holiday.
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