A concise biography of the divisive Pakistani leader.
In this sharp, perceptive contribution to the Icons series, Allen (Chair, English/Bennington Coll.; The Other Side of the Mirror: an American Travels through Syria, 2011, etc.) examines the controversial Benazir Bhutto (1953-2007), who served two nonconsecutive terms as prime minister in the 1980s and 1990s. Although young Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai called Bhutto an inspiration, the woman who emerges here was arrogant, self-serving, and narcissistic (“addicted to adulation”). As she gained power, the author writes, her pretensions became “elevated from the monarchical…to the positively imperial.” By the time she was installed as prime minister for the second time, in 1993, she “simply caved in to the culture of corruption—indeed excelled in it.” She gave her greedy husband multiple government positions, allowing the couple to enrich themselves on an unprecedented scale—the author estimates they gleaned $2 billion to $3 billion in graft. Bhutto’s outsized sense of self-importance had been nurtured by her powerful father, Pakistan’s president and, later, prime minister. He sent his glamorous, indulged, “pampered favorite daughter” to Radcliffe, then Oxford, where he pressed her to hone her talents as a public speaker by standing for election as president of the Oxford Union, a prestigious debating society. Observers of her career remarked that “style tended to trump substance.” She defined leadership as “being charismatic, as pulling together alliances in a personal way,” rather than making and carrying out policy. Allen’s interviews with a few of Bhutto’s American contemporaries give this biography immediacy and candor, and she distills information from published material, such as Bhutto’s own whitewashed autobiography and scholar Stanley Wolpert’s biography of her father. These sources provide ample evidence of American support and manipulation of Pakistan’s “military, authoritarian regime” and “facade of democracy.”
Although drawing on only limited Pakistani sources, Allen nevertheless creates a compelling look at Bhutto’s tumultuous life and Pakistan’s roiling history.