"Things are in the saddle, and ride mankind."
Emerson's couplet comes to mind as the New Year opens with Pakistan, the second largest Muslim country on Earth, in social and political chaos, trending toward a failed state with nuclear weapons.
Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, whom the White House pressed to return home from exile to form an anti-Islamist alliance with President Pervez Musharraf, is dead, assassinated on the second try in two months.
Her 19-year-old son, who has spent most of his life outside the country, is now the declared leader of her Pakistan Peoples Party but is remaining at Oxford. Her husband, widely regarded as the bag man of the Bhutto family, is playing regent, denouncing the Pakistan Muslim League with which Musharraf is affiliated as a "murderers' league."
As riots ravage the country, the PPP is demanding that the Jan. 8 elections go forward and calling on the nation to repudiate Musharraf and bring the PPP to power -- in her memory.
Nawaz Sharif, a two-time prime minister like Bhutto who presided over Pakistan's test of an atom bomb, who is close to the Islamists, who was also ousted for corruption, and who is detested by Musharraf, had declared an election boycott. Now his party, too, is urging that the elections go forward. Sharif wants Musharraf out and himself in.
If Musharraf postpones the elections, or they are not regarded as free and fair, the whole nation could erupt. If he does not postpone the elections, he will almost surely be repudiated.
Revealed by all this is the inability, if not the impotence, of America to assure a desired outcome in a nation whose support is indispensable if we are not to lose the war in Afghanistan, now in its seventh year.
Moreover, the reactions of some U.S. presidential candidates suggest they are not ready to run this country, let alone Pakistan. After Bhutto's assassination, Bill Richardson called on Musharraf to resign. Hillary Clinton has suggested that Musharraf could be toppled and demanded that he submit to an outside investigation of the murder of Benazir Bhutto.
Nancy Pelosi is suggesting a cutoff in U.S. aid if there is no outside investigation and demanding the White House ensure that Pakistan's elections are "free and fair." Perhaps the Pakistanis will demand observers this year in Florida and Ohio.
But if Musharraf stands down, who steps in? Do we know? And if elections go forward, are we ready to accept any outcome?