January Issue 2008

By | News & Politics | Published 16 years ago

“The United States strongly condemned this cowardly act by murderous extremists who are trying to undermine Pakistan’s democracy. Those who committed this crime must be brought to justice.”

President George W. Bush was among the first of dozens of world leaders to release a statement on Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. But by the eighth year of his presidency, few people cared. With Bush now suffering from lame-duck syndrome, the world was far more interested in what the next American president had to say. Having already elected one president of negligible intelligence, based on the statements made by the candidates, it seems this time around, US voters are aiming even lower.

Pakistanis, and indeed most foreigners, have an impression that most Americans are overweight and ignorant, a prejudice that was confirmed by Republican frontrunner Mike Huckabee the night Benazir was assassinated. In a breathtaking leap of logic he was able to link the situation in Pakistan with US concern of illegal immigration across the Mexican border. He told reporters on December 27, “We ought to have an immediate, very clear monitoring of our borders and particularly to make sure if there’s any unusual activity of Pakstanis coming into our country.”

huckabee-jan08The next day he expanded on this remark, digging an even deeper hole he would never be able to extricate himself from. “When I say say single them out, I am making the observation that we have more Pakistani illegals coming across our border than all other nationalities except those immediately south of the border.” The only problem with this clarification was that it was completely untrue. According to figures released by the US Department of Homeland Security last year, far more illegal immigrants come from the Philippines, China, South Korea and Vietnam. Additionally, most Pakistani illegal immigrants overstay their visas rather than unlawfully cross the Mexican border.

But Huckabee wasn’t done yet. Asked at a press conference why he feared an influx of Pakistani immigrants in the wake of Benazir’s killing, he responded, “The fact is that the immigration issue is not so much about people coming to pick lettuce or make beds, it’s about someone coming with a shoulder-fired missile.”

Huckabee lodged his foot even more firmly into his mouth when sounding off on Pervez Musharraf. In an interview on MSNBC, he proclaimed, “Musharraf has told us he does not have enough control of those eastern borders near Afghanistan to be able to go after the terrorists.” He concluded by saying that he was worried about martial law continuing in Pakistan, although the state of emergency had been lifted on December 15.

The Huckabee campaign released a statement after all of this saying that the candidate had not misspoken or blundered.

Where Huckabee’s mistakes were those of fact, Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton, who had personally known Benazir, slipped up by indulging in conspiracy theories. Two days after Bhutto’s assassination, Hillary released a statement hinting that the army may have been responsible. “There are those saying that Al-Qaeda did it. Others are saying it looked like it was an inside job. Remember Rawalpindi is a garrison city.” She neglected to mention that Rawalpindi had been the scene of a sustained suicide bombing campaign directed against the army.

This is not to say that Hillary didn’t make any errors of fact. In an interview with Wolf Blitzer on CNN on December 28, she said, “If President Musharraf wishes to stand for election, then he should abide by the same rules that every other candidate will have to follow.” She then compounded the error by telling ABC News, “He [Musharraf] could be the only person on the ballot. I don’t think that’s a real election.”

barack-obama-jan08Hillary’s rival for the Democrat nomination Barack Obama used the occasion to stroke his ego and revive his earlier calls for invading Pakistan. Obama, who had said he would take unilateral action in Pakistan and refused to rule out the use of nuclear weapons against the country, said that Benazir’s assassination only confirmed the wisdom of his words. He also reminded voters that he had been drawing attention to the problems in Pakistan for “some time”. In Obama’s case, some time is all of four months.

Initially, the most sensible statement on Bhutto’s death came from a surprising source: former mayor of New York City Rudy Guiliani. In the only display of restraint from a presidential candidate, Guiliani said, “I think it is inappropriate to see it [Benazir’s assassination] in a political light… I don’t think that would be the most appropriate thing right now to talk about.” According to Guliani spokesman Maria Commella, as quoted by CBS News, the all-important phrase in that statement was “right now” which, she said, meant the day of Bhutto’s assassination. A couple of days later, Guliani released an ad interspersing images of Benazir, Osama bin Laden and the burning Twin Towers. He used the ad to say that America’s enemies were assassinating foreign leaders and only the hero of 9/11 could fight that war.

There was only one constant amid the statements released by the leading candidates for the US presidential elections. Without exception, all the front-runners believed that the US had not only the right, but also a duty, to intervene in Pakistan. Thus, it is not surprising that the only words of wisdom came from a candidate who has absolutely no shot at winning his party’s nomination: Republican anti-war isolationist Ron Paul. “They [Pakistanis] have to deal with it [Benazir’s assassination]. It’s their country not our country…The sooner we do less, the better it is for them and for us.”

Amid the flood of statements released by all the candidates, the conventional wisdom among US political commentators was that Bhutto’s assassination would completely alter the Iowa caucuses on January 3, with candidates such as Hillary Clinton and Rudy Guliani, who had greater foreign policy experience than their opponents, expected to benefit. As is usually the case, the conventional wisdom was completely wrong with the inexperienced Obama and Huckabee winning in Iowa. Maybe, Pakistan is not quite as important to farmers in Middle America as it is to the mainstream media.

Nadir Hassan is a Pakistan-based journalist and assistant editor at Newsline.