Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- The assassination of Benazir Bhutto followed urgent pleas to the State Department for the last two months by her representatives for better security protection. The U.S. reaction was that she was worried over nothing, expressing assurance that Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf would not let anything happen to her.

That attitude led Bhutto's agent to inform a high-ranking State Department official that her camp no longer viewed the backstage U.S. effort to broker power sharing between Musharraf and former Prime Minister Bhutto as a good faith effort toward democracy. It was, according to the written complaint, an attempt to preserve the politically endangered Musharraf as George W. Bush's man in Islamabad.

President Bush confirmed that judgment with his statement Thursday, within hours of learning that Bhutto was dead, when he urged the Jan. 8 election to be held in furtherance of Pakistani "democracy." That may be Musharraf's position, but it definitely is not that of his critics. They believe an election would be a sham with Bhutto dead, no successor named to head her Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and another candidate, Saudi-backed former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, boycotting the balloting.

The Bush administration months ago decided to broker power sharing with the deeply unpopular Gen. Musharraf, retiring from the army but staying as president, and the popular Bhutto taking a third try at prime minister (after twice being ousted by the military). That decision was based on Pakistan's strategic importance as a sanctuary for al Qaeda and Taliban fighters. Bush was in a quandary. Bhutto was much tougher than Musharraf on Islamist extremists, but Bush had heavily invested in the general.

When I last saw Bhutto over coffee in August at Manhattan's Pierre Hotel, she was deeply concerned about U.S. ambivalence but asked me not to write about it. She had not heard from Musharraf for three weeks after their secret July meeting in Abu Dhabi. She feared the Pakistani military strongman was not being prodded from Washington.

Next came Musharraf's state of emergency and purge of Pakistan's Supreme Court to guarantee legality of his questionable election as president. According to Bhutto's advisers, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in a telephone conversation asked Bhutto to go along with that process in return for concessions from Musharraf. Bhutto agreed, but got nothing in return.

Robert Novak

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

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