Washington Babylon — October 24, 2007, 2:08 pm

Mo’ Bhutto Blues

I’m all in favor of Benazir Bhutto’s return to Pakistan, but the fawning over the former Prime Minister by American political leaders and the media is way out of control. Bhutto, who had been exiled on corruption charges for almost a decade, has struck a power-sharing deal with President Pervez Musharraf. Just after her return last week, two suicide bombers attacked a huge procession welcoming her back to the country.

If she manages to stay alive, Bhutto’s return might well push her county back towards democracy. But she’s not a saint. Her father, a feudal lord, was overthrown as president by the military and executed in 1979. In 1988, following nearly a decade of martial law, Bhutto won office as prime minister but was forced out less than two years later over allegations of corruption. She won office again in 1993 but was removed from power once more in 1996–again under a cloud of corruption. Her two terms were also marked by serious human rights abuses. Today, Bhutto heads the Pakistan People’s Party, which despite its name is little more than a vehicle for her own political ambitions.

Corruption charges against Bhutto were dropped as part of the deal she reached with Musharraf, but there was plenty of evidence behind the allegations. Those interested might look to a 1997 story in the New York Times, which described a:

widening corruption inquiry that Pakistani investigators say has traced more than $100 million to foreign bank accounts and properties controlled by Ms. Bhutto’s family. Starting from a cache of Bhutto family documents bought for $1 million from a shadowy intermediary, the investigators have detailed a pattern of secret payments by foreign companies that sought favors during Ms. Bhutto’s two terms as Prime Minister.

A central figure in the investigation was Bhutto’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari. The Times wrote that he “turned his marriage to Ms. Bhutto into a source of virtually unchallengeable power.” The story described a number of shady deals involving Zardari–like the one in which “a leading Swiss company hired to curb customs fraud in Pakistan paid millions of dollars between 1994 and 1996 to offshore companies controlled by Mr. Zardari and Ms. Bhutto’s widowed mother, Nusrat.” Then there was the $10 million deposit into an account controlled by Zardari by a Middle Eastern gold bullion dealer–a deposit made “after the Bhutto Government gave him a monopoly on gold imports that sustained Pakistan’s jewelry industry.”

What accounts for Bhutto’s general popularity in Washington? As reporters never tire of reporting, she’s a Harvard alumnus, and Ivy League connections never hurt. (The press loves a foreign leader with an Ivy sheepskin. Remember when newspapers played up the Harvard Yard credentials of President Carlos Salinas of Mexico–until it finally became clear that Salinas’s brother, cronies, and friends grew obscenely rich during his rule?) A recent New York Times story notes that she was “first introduced to America’s political power brokers in 1984, via the dinner party circuit.” Her chief promoter and ardent friend was Peter Galbraith, who later became U.S ambassador to Croatia and is a Harvard man himself.

When she was prime minister in 1989 Bhutto was honored at President George Bush’s first state dinner, and, the Times reported, she “maintained her close ties to Washington during the Clinton administration” both while prime minister and after living in exile. In 1998, Bhutto won a White House audience with Hillary Clinton through Mark Siegel, a Democratic operative.

It’s fine to root for Bhutto. But don’t imagine she’s a sainted opposition figure. Pakistan has had its fair share of corrupt leadership, and Bhutto may simply be a better class of crook.

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