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Mark Steyn on the Bhutto assassination, and Pakistan’s future.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

HH: We begin as we do on Thursdays when we are lucky with Columnist To the World, Mark Steyn. Mark, I just read your post over at the Corner on how Benazir Bhutto represented Pakistan’s past, and today’s tragic assassination of her confirms it. Do you want to expand on what you’re trying to convey with that?

MS: Yes, I think Benazir Bhutto represented, in a sense, the embers of the Pakistan that Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the country’s founder, wanted to build, which was a country with a Muslim population that generally speaking operated to a secular, socialist, Westernized tradition. Benazir Bhutto, educated at Oxford University, I seem to know…and she was a little bit older than me…I seem to know an inordinate number of her ex-boyfriends I’ve run into at one time or another, urbane Oxford Englishmen, she was quite comfortable dating. She presided, her father was prime minister of Pakistan, not a good prime minister. Benazir Bhutto’s second term was certainly more successful than that. But the idea that this modern, Westernized, glamorous woman would be the solution to Pakistan’s problems in 2007 was a delusion of the State Department, and its logical consequence was her murder today. I weep for her. She was a wonderful woman in many ways. But she should not have gone back to Pakistan, which has profoundly changed.

HH: I participated in a conference call with Council On Foreign Relations fellow Daniel Markey today, and it’s very depressing. It’s a nation of 160 million people, and at least millions of them are Islamists, and tens of thousands of them violent jihadists. They’ve got 90 nukes, a completely compromised intelligence service, and now a paralyzed political process. And as Stanley Kurtz, the guest next segment, argued in the Claremont Review of Books, Waziristan is sort of extending itself across the entire country of Pakistan. We’ve got a situation that is potentially worse than Afghanistan was, Mark Steyn.

MS: Well, I think you could, in a sense, Stanley is right. But in a sense, you could say, I think, that Waziristan is extending itself across the entire world, which is that as…a lot of us regard the creation of Pakistan as one of the worst decisions of British imperial policy ever. Lord Mountbatten in 1947 should never have agreed to it. Pakistan’s founder, Jinnah, would have been dead within the year, and who knows then how much momentum there would have been. But in a sense, it developed as the complete opposite of India. India is pluralist, secular, progressive, modern, and Pakistan, instead, has regressed with each generation to the point now where as Stanley points out, what were hitherto relatively modern cities, are now taking on the characteristics of the sort of tribal cave lands, as it were, in their political character. And this is a problem not just for Pakistan, but for where those jihadists export their populations to, which is places like Scandinavia and Britain and Canada.

HH: And I also worry about these nukes. Now in the past, when Sadat was assassinated in Egypt, Mubarak arrived and immediately clamped down with a repression so severe, people still speak of it in hushed terms. But on this conference today, journalist after journalist asked the Pakistan expert, you know, is this Bush’s fault for pushing too hard, did we push too slow, what will America do now, as though it’s our problem, Mark Steyn, as though we have any…I mean, it is our problem, but we don’t have anything to do with it right now, or very little.

MS: Well, I think the idea that somehow a guy sitting in Washington can manage a country from thousands of miles away is what got us into this mess. You know, what is it diplomats do? What is it the State Department does? It flies into places, and a lot of the people, Congressman Dreier is a good example, a Congressman flies in, he meets with eminent persons in Islamabad or Karachi, or wherever, and he comes away thinking that these people speak for the country. They don’t. It’s the fierce, implacable young men of 18, 19 and 20, that nobody knows the names of, who never get to meet anybody important, who are Pakistan. That’s what Pakistan is. They’re the people who provide untold numbers of volunteers for the jihad, and who when you say oh, who would like to be the one who blows himself in front, and takes Benazir Bhutto with him, and the whole room puts up its hands. None of those people ever meet with Congressman or Senators, or anyone from the State Department. But they are the reality of Pakistan, and poor Benazir Bhutto, I’m afraid, was a Foggy Bottom delusion.

HH: You know, a week from now, we might be talking about poor Pervez Musharraf as well. It seems to me that the army is the only institution on which we can have any reliance in Pakistan. And it’s deeply compromised, as everyone who studies the region knows, but the idea that we can rush off to democracy in Pakistan seems to me to be just an absolute illusion, Mark Steyn.

MS: Yes, and I think you have to look at what has happened, which is that the one safe bet you can make is that Pakistan generally evolves into something worse. You mentioned the army, which was traditionally one of the least corrupt institutions of Pakistan. It has very much, and it honors, people like General Musharraf honor that British-Indian army tradition from which they sprang, and in which they trained. But in recent years, that army, too, has been hollowed out by not just the corruption elements that afflict the political class in Pakistan, but also by Islamism, too. So that a good bet, I would say, is that the Pakistani army, a decade down the road, will be a lot worse than the Pakistani army of the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. And it is the height of arrogance for people to sit around in think tanks and sort of plot courses for this kind of great seething cauldron of anonymous faces on the other side of the world.

HH: The only good aspect of this, and I’m not sure yet it is a good, is that it has brought some seriousness to the presidential campaign. How does it impact the presidential campaign in your view, Mark Steyn?

MS: Well, I would hope, I would like to think that it renders certain candidacies, for example, you know, the happy face Obama candidacy, or the Mike Huckabee thing, where he did, I don’t know what he was thinking of, and I hope he was tired and not, and it’s not genuinely what he means, when he apologized for the assassination of Bhutto today. But in a sane world, it would render these men utterly implausible as presidential contenders. Now if it seems entirely possible Huckabee and Obama go on to have a baffo night in Iowa in a few days time, then I think it will tell you that regardless of what happens to strange foreigners in strange parts of the world, the American people have decided this is a post-9/11 election, and they’re not going to pay heed to that.

HH: You know, I have been making the argument, and into some pretty heavy wind today, that this also undermines Fred Thompson and John McCain, because Senators don’t run anything, Mark Steyn, except their mouths and committees badly, that it’s not about visiting a country, it’s about managing a war, and that Giuliani and Romney have executive experience, and Hillary can actually be understood to have some executive experience, or at least being close to it for a while. What do you make of the idea that foreign crisis elevates John McCain’s rather sad record of legislative screw-ups because he’s traveled the globe?

MS: Well, I would generally agree with you that Senators make bad, not just bad presidents, actually, but bad everything. I mean, John Kerry couldn’t even run that donut stand in Boston, which is his only experience in the private sector, as far as one knows. You know, they are the classic examples of kind of rolodex politics, that they think it’s about flying across the world and meeting other A-list names. And I think that is exactly what is not needed at this time. As you say, I think an executive ability, combined, I think, with a grasp of the underlying demographic reality, you know, Pakistan is a young country, it has one of the highest birth rates in the world, and although we can talk about this and that, and I’ve been talking, you know, it’s only 60 years old, this country. But in a sense, to all those young men, 18, 19, 20, that it exports all over the planet, what Pakistan was like in 1947 is utterly foreign and utterly irrelevant to them. And so the sort of, these kind of people who think it’s just about getting on the phone and speaking to some other A-list name in the rolodex on the other side of the world, I think that’s about the least helpful way to approach this thing.

HH: Is it fair to say that it also underscores that the two countries we invaded, Afghanistan and Iraq, are much safer for us, seven years out, six years out, than the one we didn’t, Mark Steyn?

MS: Yes, and I think the reality is you look to the point at which you can apply pressure. As disastrous as Afghanistan was, in a way, it’s less complicated to go into Afghanistan and change the facts on the ground than it is to do it in Pakistan. Likewise, you know, people can say oh, why did we invade Iraq instead of Iran, instead of Saudi Arabia? Because in 2003, it was easier to change the facts on the ground in Iraq than Saudi Arabia. And you hope by picking the right point to prick the balloon, that you’ll have an impact in the rest of the region, too. But you know, this idea, we criticize Bush for this and Bush for that, but the idea that you fix some of the most intractable problems of the world in six months, twelve months, two years, is ludicrous. I mean, this is a physical, long term struggle, and there are not easy answers.

HH: Thank you, Mark Steyn, Happy New Year to you.

End of interview.

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