Benazir Bhutto was also the flawed heir to a great, progressive political legacy, though hers was a bloody and turbulent inheritance defined by her father's execution by General Zia's military dictatorship. She had little to show for her two spells in office. Still, her death - and the courage of her final campaign - will rightly make her an enduring symbol of the desire for Pakistani democracy. That was not just the central theme of the tributes paid by world leaders. It is also echoed in the more nuanced and critical accounts from commentators and political opponents.
Bhutto's assassination also marks a failure of US and western polcy towards Pakistan. Over recent months, the top priority of the US administration had been brokering a Musharraf-Bhutto alliance, a strategy fraught with risk since the rift between the military and the Bhutto clan has dominated Pakistan's recent political history. The ostensible rationale was to bolster stability and western influence, yet those aims seemed to have become indistinguishable from the wish to 'bail out' President Musharraf.
It should now be clear that this broader strategy of backing Musharraf has now failed. The Washington debate has been about stability versus democracy - yet history is littered with evidence that making the 'strongman' choice for stability frequently delivers neither stability nor democracy. The broader mistake has been to place far too little emphasis on backing democratic principles and institution building, and instead too much on backing individuals, whose rhetorical commitment to those long-term goals has been, at best, contingent and more often lacking credibility entirely.
The argument for a change of policy is made powerfully by newspapers on three different continents today.
In London, The Guardian anticipates that Musharraf will claim to be the alternative to chaos, but notes that the claim has become threadbare:
This is by now a familiar speech. He made it when he first seized power as chief of the army eight years ago. He had made it when he launched a mini-coup by declaring a state of emergency on November 3. And he made it again last night. Each time he claims that the chaos in society justifies emergency powers, he fails to deliver that stability.
The New York Times is hopeful that the right policy might now be followed since all alternatives now appear to have been exhausted.
Betting America’s security (and Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal) on an unaccountable dictator, President Pervez Musharraf, did not work. Betting it on a back-room alliance between that dictator and Ms. Bhutto, who had hoped to win a third try as prime minister next month, is no longer possible.
That leaves Mr. Bush with the principled, if unfamiliar, option of using American prestige and resources to fortify Pakistan’s badly battered democratic institutions. There is no time to waste.
The Times of India puts a related point perhaps most powerfully of all. The argument that "the top priority has to be stabilising the nation" is correct, but should not now imply once again reinforcing emergency powers for Musharraf. "Making Musharraf the main prop of the nation's stability has failed, decisively".most powerfully of all. says the paper, noting the highly questionable focus of this supposed path to democratisation in recent months.
Musharraf's administration has focused its energies on targeting lawyers, political activists, supreme court judges and mediapersons, sending thousands of peaceful activists to jail. While being unable to prevent terrorists from striking at will, not even in Rawalpindi, which is a garrison city as well as ISI's home base. The military has also been diverting aid meant for frontline troops fighting the Taliban and the Al-Qaida, for the sake of trophy arms purchases if not outright corruption.
Independent voices in Pakistan have expressed similar views. The day before the assassination, an editorial in Dawn, Pakistan's leading English language newspaper noted the lack of substantive foreign policy progress in the Karzai-Musharraf summit this week, noting that 'the president's decision to shed his uniform, the return of the exiled ex-prime ministers, and the on-going campaigning have not given Pakistan even a semblance of normality.
Yet one lesson of the failure of current western strategy is to appreciate the limits of what can be engineered from outside. The possibilities for constructive external diplomatic pressure will depend on internal developments. Benazir Bhutto's PPP was a strange hybrid - a wholly owned family fiedfdom and yet still perhaps the best hope for democracy. Turning a dynasty into a democratic movement must be the task of those seeking to construct the viable alternative to military rule or Islamism which Pakistan needs.