The Bhutto effect

Now how do you feel about a war against al-Qaeda?

The answer to that, especially if it’s changed in the last 48 hours, is the key to who’ll lead the United States.

In the aftermath of Thursday’s killing (the exact means being hotly disputed) of Benazir Bhutto the political reality is hitting the shores of the United States, just as the war in Iraq was about to be eclipsed by the economy as the main issue of the campaign.

The presidential candidates were quick to respond to her assassination, but none has yet refocused the stump speech to center on the global threat of terrorism in specific terms, even as an Italian news agency reports today that the assassination was planned and carried out by a militant group with ties to al-Qaeda.

CNN, it needs to be noted, points out, “No one has accepted responsibility for Bhutto’s death on radical Islamist Web sites that regularly post such messages from al-Qaeda and other militant groups. CNN could not independently confirm that al-Qaeda has claimed responsibility.”

But U.S. sources have already begun suggesting a likely al-Qaeda link. If that turns out to be the case, how that changes the coming election in the U.S. depends very much on how that elevates the entire terrorism issue on your radar. Does a dead presidential candidate in Pakistan begin to carry the same political symbolism in a campaign as a smoking hole in lower Manhattan?

Rudy Giuliani came closest to a slightly revised focus in his statement, according to the L.A. Times.

And Giuliani was quick to issue a statement Thursday calling the incident a “reminder that terrorism anywhere — whether in New York, London, Tel Aviv or Rawalpindi — is an enemy of freedom.”

Bhutto’s assassination has done little to stir things in Minnesota’s U.S. Senate race yet.

U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman issued a statement on Thursday saying…

“I strongly condemn the murder of Benazir Bhutto, which was committed by forces in Pakistan who are working to subvert the process of political reconciliation and democratization. As an advocate for democracy in Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto put her love of country above her own safety and paid the ultimate price for her principles. The best way to honor her memory is to continue advancing the democratic process for which she gave her life. The perpetrators of this murder must be brought to justice, and Pakistan must continue a path back to the rule of law and democratic rule.”

Neither of Coleman’s main challengers — Al Franken and Mike Ciresi — have yet issued statements on the killing.

Update 6:05 p.m. Friday 12/28 Mike Ciresi has put out this statement:

Like many others around the world, I am saddened by the tragic assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Her death is a devastating blow to the success of democracy in Pakistan, and the stability of the country to which she spent her life in service.

This is a stark and sad reminder that the original mission to destroy Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan remains unaccomplished. We live in serious times that require real leadership, sound judgment and the courage to do the right thing. Ms. Bhutto’s assassination illuminates the tensions and divisions that exist in a critical state, the stability of which has profound strategic implications. I have repeatedly pointed out the necessity for a foreign policy initiative that recognizes the extremely sensitive role that Pakistan has in the region. Instability in Pakistan increases concerns in India, undermines our efforts in Afghanistan and erodes our capability to relentlessly pursue Al Qaeda. The United States must initiate policies and actions which encourage a more broad sharing of power among Pakistan’s existing government and the moderate parties within the country. History has repeatedly pointed out that a policy based on personalities rather than expanded coalitions is fraught with danger. This is underscored in a nation which has existing nuclear capabilities and unstable conditions fueled by terrorists and extremists.

(End of update)

Writing in the the Sydney Herald today, Amin Saikal a professor of political science and director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University, raises the question of whether the war on terrorism, as defined in the U.S., is still winnable.

In the meantime, the situation in neighboring Afghanistan – where the US and its NATO and several non-NATO allies have been battling a resurgent Taliban and al-Qaeda, and where the Karzai Government has not developed beyond being thoroughly corrupt and dysfunctional – has become increasingly intolerable for most of the Afghans and the international community.

Under these circumstances, how can Washington still remain confident of victory in the war on terrorism? If the Bush Administration has now run out of viable policy options, it has no one to blame but itself.

If there is an al-Qaeda link, Time Magazine says, “it could well indicate political assassination, once an exception to the rules, has now become a must-do in the Jihadist playbook.”

Matthew Yglesias, writing on, suggests that shouldn’t indicate that the political beneficiaries are the hawks.

In Pakistan, after all, you’ve got real nukes and more radicals — trouble there is big-time trouble. But, presumably, there’ll be a lull in the situation at that point. Maybe during that lull people can try to remember that these things are all linked together and that choosing toughseriousness is what led US policy in the region to fall into such a state of drift in the first place.

So, obviously, how this changes — or not — the political campaign here over the next 11 months depends on how you view things.

So, how do you view things?