Robert Novak

NEW YORK -- Benazir Bhutto arrived in New York three weeks ago, shortly after meeting secretly in Abu Dhabi with Gen. Pervez Musharraf. She leaves this week, without having heard again from Pakistan's military ruler. More than merely deciding who rules Pakistan, global conflict against radical Islam may be at risk.

The Bush administration is the silent matchmaker for an unlikely political marriage of bitter opponents: President Musharraf and former Prime Minister Bhutto. The unstated U.S. goal is a democratic Pakistan, with the unpopular Musharraf retaining his presidency and the popular Bhutto returned to the prime minister's office, from which she twice was ousted by the military. Washington now views this as the means of making Pakistan a reliable, invaluable ally against worldwide terror.

Musharraf and Bhutto ended their tense encounter in the United Arab Emirates with key issues unresolved. Thus, subsequent silence by the Pakistani strongman is ominous. If Musharraf is backing away from power sharing and is intent on being elected president without Bhutto as a partner, they are on a collision course. Bhutto intends to return to Pakistan for the first time in eight years, heavily favored in elections this autumn as leader of the Pakistan People's Party. But Musharraf wants his election as president while Bhutto is still in exile. Time is running out, with agreement needed in early September.

Benazir Bhutto is nearing a climax in her remarkable life. A Harvard and Oxford graduate, beautiful, charismatic and determined, she became prime minister in 1988 at age 35 (nine years after her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was driven from the presidency and later executed by a military regime). She was ousted by the Army halfway through each of her two separate terms as prime minister, under charges of corruption.

I last saw Bhutto in the autumn of 2005 at the Washington home of her longtime supporter, prominent Democrat Mark Siegel. She pulled me aside to contend Musharraf was not a dependable ally in fighting terrorism. I listened politely but put it down as typical exile talk. However, she proved prophetic when Musharraf in 2006 cut a deal with Pakistani tribal groups, creating a sanctuary for al Qaeda and Taliban fighters.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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