The cycle of catastrophe

Condoleezza Rice in effect signed Bhutto's death warrant when she phoned her in Dubai last October a

Poor, poor Americans. They just can't help f*****g up the world, just as predictably as Philip Larkin's parents f****d up their children and handed down unhappiness from generation to generation. The moment I heard of Benazir Bhutto's assassination I thought of Larkin's ode to misery, wondering if any American might be able to break the spell of nationalistic self-delusion, and face the fact that it was yet another disastrous US foreign policy that had directly resulted in multiple fatalities, including the death of a famous 54-year-old woman, in December in a faraway land called Pakistan.

But I was wrong. There has been no contrition whatsoever over Bhutto's death, let alone any admission of culpability. Yet Condoleezza Rice, the calamitous secretary of state, in effect signed Bhutto's death warrant when she phoned her in Dubai last October and said Bhutto had full US support to return to contest this month's elections; a week later Bhutto duly did so, and was all but blown to pieces within hours.

In a 13 December email sent on her BlackBerry to her old teenage chum Peter Galbraith, former US ambassador to Croatia, Bhutto appealed for help to obtain the equipment and support to jam roadside bombs. But, by that time, it was too late. The deal had been done, hammered out by Bhutto in negotiations with the state department during two visits to Washington in August and September. It was signed and sealed when Rice's deputy, John Negroponte, flew to Islamabad in September to tell Pervez Musharraf that the Bush administration had decided Pakistan should be ruled jointly, with the then general as president and Bhutto as prime minister.

Musharraf would continue the steely military rule that had kept the lid on Pakistan for eight years, and Bhutto would provide just a whiff of the democratisation the administration holds so dear when it suits its needs. Revolting though the plan was to Musharraf, he has never forgotten the infamous dressing-down he allegedly received from Richard Armitage, the US deputy secretary of state from 2001-2005: "Do what we say, or we'll bomb you back into the Stone Age." It had the desired effect of cowing him into compliance, and his dictatorship has since received roughly $10bn from Washington.

Musharraf duly gave in to US pressure to drop serious corruption charges against Bhutto and to agree to her becoming Pakistan's prime minister yet again. The $250,000 she had paid in the first half of 2007 to Burson-Marsteller, the Washington PR firm whose clientele has ranged from the Argentinian junta to Blackwater, had been worth its weight in gold.

Heaven knows, though, whether Musharraf really did accept Bhutto's return, or whether he hoodwinked the Americans and had her killed. But because of the heartbreaking short-sightedness of US foreign policy, a friend one minute is an enemy the next, and vice versa. Huge sums of American money change hands meantime.

It was not so long ago that an attractive young woman named Benazir Bhutto wooed lecherous old DC politicians into lavishing funds on mujahedin heroically resisting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Yet almost overnight those same mujahedin found themselves labelled as enemy Taliban responsible for 9/11, and Afghanistan was being bombed enthusiastically.

The cycle of catastrophe perpetuates itself. FDR puts the Shah into power in Tehran; Ayatollah Khomeini overthrows him in 1979, finishing off the Carter administration by holding 52 US diplomats hostage for 444 days; Reagan reacts by arming the neighbouring Saddam Hussein to the teeth, even sending the young Donald Rumsfeld to suck up to him; emboldened by US support and his new military power, Saddam invades Kuwait and precipitates war; the second Bush administration declares revenge and plunges Iraq into bloody civil war. Which brings us back to Iran, and the determination of neocon hawks to nuke it back to its senses in 2008.

The underlying problem, I've come to believe, is that Americans make the blind assumption that democracy and freedom are synonymous with their values; that what many Americans still see as their country's manifest destiny bestows on them the right to rearrange the world as they see fit, toying with countries, until they tire and move on to the next. What never fades is an underlying faith that US dollars and might can magically conjure up the scenario that Washington wants. That is a doomed strategy, of course; they don't mean to, these Americans, but they continually f**k us up, you see.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 07 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan plot