January 3, 2008

January 3, 2008 | Commentary on Europe

Cover story

As the media does its traditional review of the past year, Time magazine's choice of "Person of the Year" once again comes as a puzzlement.

The title used to be "Man of the Year," but that phrase has fallen into the dustbin of political correctness. Still, the "person" gracing Time's cover this year as was the case most years, is a man. In 2007, the honor went to Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose accumulation of power has indeed reached a new nadir, but hardly changed the course of international relations.

One hopes that the Time editors are kicking themselves, however, for though they could not have predicted the Dec. 27 assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, her tragic death will have a profound impact on the future of Pakistan and on the struggle against militant Islam. Not only that, but here is someone who gave her life for her country, to which she returned from exile in order to help pull it in the direction of political modernity and religious moderation. She did so with her eyes open to the grave personal risk. Her loss is not only mourned by her countrymen, but also by her husband and three children.

Time's editors argue consistently that "honor" is the wrong word to describe the motivation for their choice each year. Being on the cover of Time signifies impact on the world, not approval, they say. They point to Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin and Ayatollah Khomeini as former "Persons of the Year." Yet, in a second instance of double standards at work in the selection process, the magazine cover story on Mr. Putin is a glowing review. Possibly, this is due to the fact that the otherwise elusive Russian president granted Time's correspondent three hours of interview in his dacha, complete with plenty of eye contact and an elaborate lobster dinner.

Thus, we read page after page about Mr. Putin's search for "respect" from the international community and from the United States (a perpetual Russian obsession), and about his economic reforms, which are keeping the Russian economy growing at a record pace (though oil prices may have more to do with it) and putting bread on the table of ordinary Russians.

However, the dark side of the Putin era is noted in just one paragraph, which briefly lists his emasculation of the media, the way he has defanged the political opposition and jailed his critics. "Yet," Time writes, "this grand bargain - of freedom from security - appeals to his Russian subjects, who had grown cynical over earlier regimes' promises of magical fruits of Western-style democracy." So much for freedom.

What a difference it would have made had Time chosen someone to be admired. Perhaps one might suggest that is what the editors should do next year, chose someone uplifting and inspiring. The runners-up this year were former Vice President and environmental guru Al Gore, Harry Potter inventor J.K. Rawling, Chinese President Hu Jintao and Gen. David Petraeus, architect of the successful surge strategy in Iraq.

Gen. Petraeus was going to be my choice, as someone who has clearly made a positive impactof major proportions. In the absence of a successful strategy and progress toward greater stability, the Bush administration may well have succumbed to the considerable pressure at home to begin a premature withdrawal of U.S. troops.

But with the news of the murder of Mrs. Bhutto, she gets my vote for "Person of the Year," not only for the impact she will have, but also for the example she set in terms of acting on her beliefs. After her return to Pakistan to participate in the political process that was to lead to Jan. 8 elections, Mrs. Bhutto knew she was the target of radical, anti-U.S., pro-al Qaeda forces, even within the Pakistani military. The security services were carrying on a bitter campaign against her, and there was not a whole lot of political sympathy from either parliament or President Pervez Musharraf for her demands for additional security.

Mrs. Bhutto's political career was not unblemished, but during her two terms as prime minister, she was firmly democratic, pro-Western and determined to root out the religious fanaticism she knew was a severe threat. During a meeting with Washington reporters at Blair House, she spoke passionately about her fight against the fanatical Wahhabi infiltration of the Pakistani religious schools during her time in office. That is the kind of leadership the world will desperately need in the years to come.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in the Washington Times