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Why is the death of Benazir Bhutto so devastating to the United States?

Don't Panic ... your war questions answered

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I honestly can't think of a more important story during my column-writing life (since 2001, thanks for asking) that has been as widely and thoroughly misreported as the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan.

The lead-up to the Iraq war was misreported, for sure, but truthful, sober analysis of Iraq was available to anyone with an Internet connection, quarters to buy a decent newspaper, and the sense to be skeptical of a transparently war-happy White House.

Finding decent reporting about Bhutto's death, however, has been tougher. Maybe it's because so many of this country's best journalists and TV-news types were on vacation when Bhutto was assassinated.

That could explain why, when I turned on CNN shortly after Bhutto's murder, there was a confused-looking business reporter muttering about how her death might be affecting stock markets (note: It didn't).

Yet oddly enough, despite its obvious short-handedness, CNN did manage on the day of the assassination to drill into my head mundane architectural details about the tiger enclosure at the San Francisco Zoo from which a tiger escaped on Christmas, killing one person and wounding two more. TigerBeat '07 was relentless on the 27th. In fact, if you watched CNN with the sound turned down Dec. 27, you might have even been left with the impression that Bhutto was killed by a tiger.

So how did reports of Bhutto's assassination fall short?

For starters, Bhutto was killed in Rawalpindi, home of Pakistan's military, and one of the few remaining bastions of support for President Pervez Musharraf's hugely unpopular dictatorship. Remember, until a couple of weeks ago, Musharraf was head of Pakistan's armed forces.

To ordinary Pakistanis, the murder of Bhutto in Rawalpindi is circumstantial evidence implicating the already overwhelmingly unpopular Perv. Imagine the conspiracy theories that would flourish in this country if a popular anti-Iraq war political candidate was gunned down at a rally adjacent to Fort Bragg or the Pentagon.

Millions of Bhutto's supporters now blame Perv for killing their heroine. By implication, Perv's biggest benefactor, the United States, therefore shares the blame. The guy we back is being blamed for killing their leader. I don't recall anyone on TV mentioning that simple, easy-to-grasp, hugely important fact.

Did Perv actually kill Bhutto? Probably not. He loathed Bhutto, but he needed her. With prodding from the United States, Perv was counting on Bhutto to do well enough in the now-delayed Jan. 8 parliamentary elections to lend some legitimacy to his illegitimate rule. Her death in Rawalpindi is more a sign of Perv's loosening grip on power than it is a sign that he put out a hit on her.

But he's still responsible for her death, along with the United States.

Since 1999, when El Pervo took power in a coup, he has systematically weakened civil society and the rule of law in Pakistan, while strengthening Pakistan's Islamic militants.

Even after U.S. aid and pressure started pouring in after 9/11, he never attacked extremists in Pakistan as intensely as he attacked Pakistan's civilian and secular leaders and judges. The emergency rule he imposed late last year was touted as a move against extremists, but it was judges, lawyers and journalists Pervster arrested, not militants.

In late 2007, the Bush administration finally figured out what readers of grown-up newspapers (including this one) were reading about in 2002 – that Perv is a double-dealing buffoon who has marched his nuclear-armed country to the brink of collapse.

Too little, too late. The White House brokered Bhutto's return, hoping she could rescue Pakistan from an Islamic revolution, but without making sure her security would be at least as good as what bad actors get on Oscar night. Now the only popular, secular, pro-Western politician in Pakistan is dead.

Musharraf will try to hang on to power, but there's a possibility his army will splinter, as some units refuse to mow down Pakistani civilians on his behalf. A nuclear-armed military with a long track record of selling nukes, supporting the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and any number of Islamic extremists might very well turn on itself in 2008.

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