Mark Siegel

“Benazir Was Like her Name – Unique, one of Kind”: Mark Siegal

Interview of Mark Siegal, Talk About his log Association with the Pakistan Peoples Party and Benazir Bhutto and Why he think Benazir Bhutto would have brought true democracy to Pakistan had she lived

How Far Back Do You Trace Your Association With The Pakistan People’S Party?

My Relationship With The Ppp Began In 1984 And It Was A Friendship With Benazir Long Before I Had Any Relationship To The Party. When She Was Released From House Arrest By Zia For Medical Reasons In 1984, After Treatment In London, She Visited The Us.

One Of My Very Close Friends Was Peter Galbraith, Who Was In Benazir’S Class At Harvard (With An Astounding Collection Of Extraordinary People, Including Kathleen Kennedy, Walter Isaacson, Ej Dionne…). So I Got A Call From Peter And He Asked If I And My Wife Judy Would Host A Dinner For A Friend Of His Who Was Just Released From Prison. At First I Thought This A Very Strange Request, But When He Told Me It Was Benazir, I Was Intrigued.

The Dinner Was A Typical Mix Of Washington Types – Journalists, Members Of Congress And Academics. Benazir Arrived And Was Very Shy And Very Quiet. I Think She Was Nervous, Probably Intimidated By The Guest List. But When We Sat Down To Dinner, The Evening Turned Into An Intellectual Salon. Benazir Spoke Softly And Everyone Seemed To Lean Forward To Hear Every Word. And Then Her Voice Grew More Confident And She Spoke For Thirty Minutes Without A Pause Or Hesitation And She Was Riveting, Absolutely Brilliant.

She And I Particularly Clicked. Soon After, She Asked Me If I Could Possibly Look After Her Affairs In Washington. Later She Asked Me If I Could Help With Her Speeches. And As We Approached Her Return To Pakistan In 1986, The Relationship Turned More Political. But That Was How It All Started, And It Was An Intense Professional And Personal Relationship And Friendship Until The Day She Was Assassinated In December Of 2007. I Miss Her Every Day.

How Do You View Benazir Bhutto As A Person And As A Leader? What Was The Level Of Your Friendship With Her?

Benazir Was Like Her Name – Unique, One Of A Kind. Her Private Persona Was A Bit Different Than Her Public One. She Was, First Of All, A Kind And Gentle Person. And She Was Funny, Really Funny. But Of Course, She Was Also Very Cautious And Sometimes Fragile, Which Was Not Surprising In Light Of Her Family’S History. There Was Always An Obvious Vulnerability. She Was Very Close To Her Father And Was Devastated By His Death And The Circumstances Of His Death. She Never Really Recovered From That.

When She Talked About Her Life, She Often Said “I Didn’T Choose This Life, It Chose Me.” She Really Wanted To Be A Journalist Or A Diplomat, Not An Iconic Political Leader. But Zab Annointed Not His Oldest Son But His Most Competent Child, A Woman, To Carry On His Work. For Better Or Worse, She Accepted That Responsibility And Never Retreated From Her Commitment To Her Country. There Was No Turning Back.

At The End, In Early 2007 When We Were Together, Working On The Book “Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy And The West,” Which Was Meant To Be A Blue Print For Her Third Term As Prime Minister, I Said In A Quiet Moment, “Benazir, You Have Given So Much To Your Country, Now It Is Time For You To Live. You Are Still Young And Beautiful, With The Best Education In The World, You Never Have To Worry About Money, You Have A Family That Adores You. For God’S Sake, Go Out And Do The Things You Love, Let Someone Else Take On The Pressure And Responsibility.”

I Think That Was Sort Of What I Said And I Remember That She Smiled, A Very Sad Smile, And Looked At Me And Said, “Mark, After All These Years You Still Don’T Understand.” I Remember Her Face Then, Her Eyes Glistened. We Never Had That Conversation Again.

In Your Opinion, Is Pakistan’S Image Worth Building With Reference To The Ppp? Which Areas Of Pakistan’S Image Would You Emphasize On, If Given The Task?

As A Lover Of The Country, Let Me Say Pakistan’S Image Is Worth Building For Its 200 Million People. Pakistan’S International Image Has No Relationship To Reality. It Is Labeled A Terrorist State When It Actually Has Been The Worst Victim Of Terrorism In The World. It Is Viewed As Undeveloped And Unsophisticated When Its Technology Is The Finest In The World. Its People Are Hard Working And Want What All Parents Want, A Better Life For Their Children.

Somehow Pakistan Is Viewed As The Militant Instigator Against India, With The World Is Blissfully Unaware That The Source Of Tension, The Occupation Of The Muslim Principality Of Kashmir, Was Mandated By The United Nations To Be Settled By Self-Determination And Free Elections, A Un Resolution Which India Has Blocked For 70 Years.

Political Instability And Dictatorship Have Further Muddled Pakistan’S Image, While The Full Story Is A People That Have Taken Heroic Steps, Against All Odds, To Build A Democracy. Yes, The Image Of Pakistan Is Worth Building For The Ppp And Other Political Forces That Believe In A Democratic Future.

How Can The Ppp Make Their Basic Philosophy Of Catering To The Poor Man More Relevant In Today’S World?

The Ppp Was, Is And Will Always Be A Liberal, Social Democratic Party Whose Universal Platform Is Directed Toward Income Equalization And Opportunity To All Strata Of Society, Not Just To The Power Elite. We See Authoritarianism And Myopic Nationalism Spreading Across Europe And Tragically Even In The United States. But In Pakistan, There Is A New Vital P And The Democratic Pp Emerging, Breaking Away From Older Ideas Tied To The Past.

The New Pakistan Deserves A Successor Generation Of Young Political Leaders Who Can Simultaneously Address Problems That Have Held Pakistan Back, Like The Failure Of The Rich To Pay Taxes And The Impact That This Has Had On Stifling Education And Opportunity In Its Cities And Villages. The Ppp Is Shaping A Successor Generation Of New, Talented, Technological Leaders Generated By An Increasingly Democratic Party Structure. Change Is Often Difficult, But Change Is Happening In The Ppp.

I Am Of Course A Bit Prejudiced About The Chairman Of The Party Because I Think Of Bilawal As Family. But He’S The Real Deal, And I Am Absolutely Certain That He Is Fully Committed To Both Democracy And Dramatic Economic Modernization And Equalization And He Has Surrounded Himself With A Cadre Of Young Leaders Who Someday, In’Shallah, Will Lead Pakistan Into A Very Bright Future.

Which Leaders Of The Ppp Have You Been Most Impressed By?

I Don’T Want To Rank The Older Leaders Of The Party And The Emerging New Leaders But There Are Two Exceptions. As I Have Said, I Think Bilawal Bhutto Zardari Is Fully Capable Of Leading The Party And Someday The Country And I Am Proud Of Him. He Gets Better Each Day. He Continues To Grow. He Embraces Innovation. I Also Would Single Out Senator Sherry Rehman As A Dynamic Fighter For Human Rights, Women’S Rights And Economic Reform. She Is Doing A Great Job In The Senate.

Do You Think If Bb Had Survived, She Would Have Brought True Democracy To Pakistan?

As I Have Said Earlier, The Book “Reconciliation” Was Written As A Blue Print For Pakistan And For Pakistan’S Emergence As A World Leader. That Was Her Dream. That Is My Dream. I Believe She Had Learned So Much From Being Both In Power And Out Of Power, And Was Ready To Lead Boldly And Brilliantly. And The Only Good Thing About Death Is That No One Can Prove Me Wrong.

What Was Benazir Bhutto’S Worldview In Terms Of Democracy?
Her Worldview Is Spelled Out In Page After Page, Chapter After Chapter Of “Reconciliation.” It Speaks For Itself.

What Is Your Opinion About The Tensions Currently Prevailing Between Pakistan And India?
The Recent Events Are Disheartening, But An Inevitable Result Of The Failure To Deal With The “Elephant In The Room”, The Continuing Human Rights Travesty Of Kashmir.

The Countries Of The World Shout Out For Self-Determination For The West Bank And Gaza But Are Deaf And Dumb To The Occupation Of The Muslims Of Kashmir. Even The Ummah Has Turned Its Back. There Are 13 Million Muslim’S Living Under Harsh Indian Occupation Of Kashmir. Why Is The League Of Arab States Quiet? Why Is The Oic Quiet? We Know The Original Un Resolution On Kashmir Giving Its Inhabitants Two Options, India Or Pakistan, Is Probably Politically Unrealistic At This Point. But Just As The 2 State Solution Is The Only Logical Way To Secure Peace Between Israel And Palestine, A 3 State Solution Would Seem To Be The Only Sensible Way To Secure Long-Term Peace Between Pakistan And India.

Three States Economically Tied Together, Living In Peace. A Dream? Absolutely. But I’M A Dreamer. Always Have Been, Always Will Be.

Did Benazir Bhutto believe that politics was especially difficult for women, that there are different standards, and of course classic misogyny?

Yes, and why shouldn’t she? She encountered it every day of her professional life. From the very outset when she assumed the leadership of the Party after ZAB’s murder, she encountered unique problems of being a woman in politics, at least in Pakistan. It was all but impossible for Benazir to travel around the provinces meeting with PPP leaders. All the leaders were men. She couldn’t meet with them alone. She had to be chaperoned. In the year after he return in 1986 the logistics of being a single women in national Pakistani politics were increasingly difficult. You know, Benazir had long given up any hope of a personal life, love, marriage, children. It was almost like a Catholic nun who is married to God. Benazir was married to Pakistan, it was just that simple. Pakistan first, Pakistan last, no time or energy for anything that would distract her from her responsibilities to the Party and country, nothing that could delay the return of democracy to Pakistan. But in 1987 Benazir came to realize that being married wouldn’t interfere with her duties, but rather would professionally free her from restrictions placed on single women. So she finally gave her mother the green light, and then came Asif. All her friends were shocked that she would agree to a traditional arranged marriage, but she rationally explained it and became very happy when the bonds of marriage actually led to love.

But the fact that she was the first woman to ever be elected to govern a Muslim country caused even more international interest, fascination and expectations. The bar was raised sky high. Like it or not, she had become an icon, the face of modern Islam. But the double standards placed on women in politics continually and consistently complicated her life and her administration. Many years later, after her second government was dismissed and her husband arrested, Benazir was to come to America on a speaking tour that we had arranged. She asked me to call the White House to see if she might visit First Lady Hillary Clinton, whom she had hosted and bonded with when Mrs. Clinton visited Pakistan with her daughter Chelsea while Benazir was PM. It was a very difficult time for Benazir, with Asif in jail, because she insisted he was “a hostage to [her] political career.” The Nawaz government was bringing legal case after legal case against her in an attempt to intimidate her and silence her as Leader of the Opposition. Her image was tarnished. As someone who had worked in the White House as Deputy Assistant to the President, I was very skeptical that the State Department would allow the First Lady to meet with a controversial Opposition leader. I called the White House and spoke to Mrs. Clinton’s Chief of Staff, who shared my skepticism. She called me back later to say that she could not get State to clear the meeting. When I told Benazir she asked me to call back and say that she understood and wanted to wish Hillary the very best, a message I delivered immediately. The next day I was stunned to be called by the Chief of Staff telling me that the First Lady absolutely insisted that the meeting take place, even if it were over the objections of NSC and State. But the meeting was to be private, off-the-record, with no pictures or press releases or even inclusion on calendars. I of course agreed to all the terms.

In May of 1998 Benazir and Hillary met in the Oval Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House. I was Benazir’s note-taker and Bruce Reidel of the National Security Council was Mrs. Clinton’s note-taker. The meeting was scheduled for 30 minutes. It lasted 90. I do not believe that it has ever been reported before. I can’t, or actually won’t go into all of the details of the long, candid and startling conversation between these two extraordinary women who both were painful victims of the politics of personal destruction. But much of the conversation was indeed about the special difficulties that they faced as women in politics and government, It was so personal that Bruce and I independently at one point put down our pens and stopped taking notes because we both felt it was almost an invasion of privacy. There was one quote from Hillary Clinton that I did transcribe, and I don’t think it would do any harm to repeat it now, with Benazir dead and Hillary sadly out of public life. It capsizes so much for Hillary and also for Benazir. Mrs. Clinton said, “You know better than anyone Benazir that we women, when we take on hard issues and open up new territory and break new ground are often blasted with ignorance and venom. Politics is a rough sport but I think much more so for women than for men. There don’t seem to be any boundaries of decency and privacy.” Benazir responded with the now famous Margaret Thatcher quote that we had been using in our speeches all over the world: “When a man is tough he is a leader. When a woman is tough she is a bitch.” Benazir and Hillary both laughed. But it wasn’t really funny, was it? It wasn’t then and it isn’t now.

Courtesy : South Asia

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