Sad Day for Democracy… but Hope on the Horizon?

There’s no getting around the fact that the assassination of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who recently returned to an active role in Pakistani politics, is a setback for any hope of democratic reform, as most observers have noted. Even more alarming, it is a significant victory for the forces of Islamic extremism the Taliban, al-Qaida, Osama bin Laden and supporters and sympathizers everywhere in a country with a nuclear arsenal.

Although observers and candidates have deplored the setback to democratic aspirations, few have discussed the impact on U.S. interests in the region or how skillfully the U.S. has tried to promote those interests. This tragic and cruel assassination could be a catalyst for the United States to reassess the state of its empire and reconsider whether it is prepared to commit increasing amounts of blood and treasure to the somewhat unfocused desire to make the world a more democratic and stable place.


Antiwar Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul was a rare exception to this rule – and his appearance with Wolf Blitzer on CNN within hours of the attack may have been a step toward validating all the hard work volunteers, donors and others have put into his campaign. If he hadn’t raised significant amounts of money and made his campaign a phenomenon, it is most unlikely that CNN would have sought his views; Duncan Hunter, for example, wasn’t asked for his views because his level of electoral support hasn’t earned him the right to be taken seriously. Ron Paul has demonstrated that there is significant support – we’ll have a better idea just how significant once actual people start caucusing and voting – for a different approach to foreign policy.

How different? Ron Paul was low-key but insistent; if he were president he would change policies so that the U.S. was less deeply involved in Pakistan’s internal affairs. He pointed out, as few engaging in "conventional" politics are willing to do, that because of our policy of sending foreign aid with little or no oversight or accountability, Musharraf is seen within Pakistan as a U.S. puppet, and this doesn’t contribute to stability. He pointed out that by supporting a military dictator while prattling about devotion to democracy, we probably enhanced the position and prospects of the Taliban and similar jihadist groups.

It is impossible to speculate intelligently yet just how many Americans took mental or psychological steps toward being ready to rethink their attitude to foreign policy and to look favorably on the idea of a policy of open trade and non-intervention, of living in a country known for its neutrality rather than for thinking it has a high-priority stake in every dispute between or within countries and a holy mission to crusade for democracy (or subservience to the U.S., a de facto acceptable alternative). But questioning interventionism and the stationing of significant numbers of military personnel in dozens of countries where the main function is to flex imperial muscles is on the way to being part of the national conversation about foreign policy, one that can’t be avoided as at least a possible option, except perhaps at Faux News.


The turmoil in Pakistan has spotlighted the fact that, as my friend and Orange County resident Muazzam Gill, formerly a senior TV producer in Pakistan who covered Benazir Bhutto’s father and now analyzes intelligence and security issues for UPI, put it: "democracy does not descend on a people from above. People ascend to democracy through the rule of law and other institutions of civil society. Pakistan has no real tradition of democracy and the U.S. directed little of the $10 billion we sent there toward building democratic institutions."

I would go a step beyond that statement to suggest that it is not really democracy per se that is important, but the conditions that are generally considered indispensable to a working quasi-democratic order: the habits and institutions of a civil society in which most human activities are conducted in ways that respect individual freedom by relying on consent and contract rather than the use of force. In such a society, having clean elections is nice, but the habits of respect for the rights of others are essential.

It could be that the assassination and ensuing turmoil in Pakistan will cause more people to question whether becoming entangled in the internal politics of countries with very different traditions and aspirations really serves core U.S. interests. Given that Pakistan has nuclear weapons, it is obviously better for the region and the world if access to the trigger is in the hands of people with an interest in restraint. Whether providing foreign aid and thereby being heavily but inconsistently involved in Pakistani politics has contributed to stability in Pakistan is a question due for review at a fundamental level.


Even as we reconsider the long-term interests of the U.S. in the region, opening the question of whether less involvement might be desirable, the U.S. is obligated as a result of current entanglements to be aware of possible wider implications of this assassination. How will this jihadist success affect Afghanistan, where the U.S. has some 35,000 troops engaged in an ill-defined effort to support an inherently shaky government? Will Russia or China see reasons to become more directly involved in Pakistani or Afghan politics? Is it likely that this assassination is a precursor to even more jihadist or terrorist activity in the region?

The immediacy of such concerns, which may seem to require special vigilance or even more aggressive action by U.S. troops in Afghanistan (or those apparently operating in Pakistan alongside the Pakistani military), should not keep us from the longer-run need to reconsider our foreign policies in the light of the realities this assassination illuminates.

It is almost unquestioned conventional wisdom, for example, that Pakistan is essential to the "war" on "terrorism." Critiques of administration policy often focus on President Bush’s tendency to personalize foreign policy, to tie it to persons rather than institutions, which led policy toward Pakistan to be centered around Musharraf rather than reaching out beyond him to the Pakistani people including other up-and-coming political leaders. But is this level of involvement really fruitful or even possible, given the small number of Americans inclined to want to understand the intricacies and subtleties of Pakistani politics?

Beyond, that, just how vital is Pakistan – really – in the larger struggle with Islamist jihadism and terrorism? Staying involved in the fortunes of the region may require committing more troops and more money at a time when the U.S. military is stretched by our involvement in Iraq. Are the American people ready for that? Will U.S. policies in southern Asia become a live issue in the U.S. presidential campaign?


Perhaps it was that I was prepared to notice or to be receptive, but it seemed to me that religious leaders around the world were a little more insistent than usual on the desirability of peace in a hardly peaceful world. I was especially heartened to see that Christmas eve services in Iraq were attended by both Shi’ite and Sunni clerics declaring solidarity with their "Christian brothers." I have to confess that I simply don’t know whether the Lord (or the deity of your preference) actively intervenes in the world to forestall disaster or tragedy or to bring about a more tolerable result. But I’m not averse to considering the possibility that when a number of religious leaders who disagree at the level of fundamental doctrine express similar concerns about the condition of the world, perhaps something akin to divine influence is a factor.

The explanation could be more mundane, that religious leaders are simply looking at the world through minds attuned to moral principles and coming to the conclusion that current levels of violence are simply inconsistent with a realistic hope of living lives of principle and fidelity to eternal moral precepts. War and warlike activity are known to undermine traditional morality; sexual promiscuity becomes more rampant among people who face the possibility of death on a repeated basis, and deception and ruthlessness are essential to winning military encounters, so honesty and openness become not just optional but seen as outright liabilities. Needless to say, mercy, a trait valued in every major religion, goes by the wayside.

The increased emphasis on building peace by religious leaders may reflect a growing understanding that constant war makes the conscientious practice of almost any religion difficult if not impossible. That’s certainly a potentially hopeful step. Now if more religious leaders would develop the understanding that the State as an institution is an impediment to the cultivation of true religion and virtues rather than a possible tool to be used toward those ends.

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Author: Alan Bock

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Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).