Astonishment only for the innocent
Virtually nothing in the Wikileaks disclosures in relation to Pakistan is truly shocking or astonishing. Knowing the nature of our politics, the dominance of the army and the long shadow of the United States on our domestic scene, there is nothing surprising in American ambassadors playing the role of nanny or psychological counsellor to Pakistani governments. Even so, when the curtain is pulled back to reveal the patient on the couch revealing his most intimate secrets to his shrink the result is fascinating.
Marquez somewhere talks about a bed made “for the outrages of love”. The word bedroom can conjure up any number of images in our mind. But to become a privileged voyeur and see things through a peephole can narrow the eyes and bring a smile to the driest lips.
Marilyn Monroe was all the rage when people my age were in their teens. We knew all about her, at least from a distance. Yet in that famous scene from The Seven Year Itch when she is standing on Seventh Avenue and a sudden gust of wind wafts her yellow skirt above her waist to reveal those immortal legs in all their glory, there was no audience in the world which could witness that epiphany and not hold its breath.
The Wikileaks exposures have had a similar effect. We have not been taken by surprise, as to the reasonably well-informed observer all this is familiar stuff. But we have been titillated, because we have been taken behind the stage to the dressing room of Pakistan-American relations…the veneer and polish of diplomatic platitudes stripped away to reveal the raw stuff of immediate history. And the view up close is exciting.
The American ambassador giving her assessment of Zardari soon after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination: a pretty shrewd summing up from which Zardari, much as many people may dislike the thought, comes out looking good. Relaxed and poised, he refers to his notes only once.
Gen Kayani in March 2009 musing over the possibility of forcing Zardari to step aside should things get out of hand during the long march. And suggesting that should that happen Asfandyar Wali could be considered as a possible replacement. Which only confirms the widely-held perception that there was a Kayani angle, the long shadow of the army, to Zardari’s eating humble pie and accepting the judges’ restoration.
In his more optimistic moments Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani has taken credit for this achievement. Now we have it from the horse’s mouth as to what actually happened. Of course Nawaz Sharif’s long march was crucial to this outcome. But the US cable traffic gives us the larger setting.
Zardari is afraid of being taken out by the army and the ISI and mentions his fears to the US ambassador. This fleshes out the conspiracy talk with which Islamabad was full in those days, eager media persons giving deadlines about Zardari’s departure, some of them going to the extent of saying that this time round an ambulance would be needed at the Presidency.
Zardari saying that he had made contingency plans and had asked Bilawal to name Faryal Talpur, Zardari’s sister, as president should he be removed from the scene. Gen Kayani musing (in a separate talk with Anne Patterson) that Faryal would make a better president than Zardari. Faryal Talpur also impresses the Americans as “extremely energetic and well respected”. Zardari says she is “tough and committed”. All in all, a flattering portrait.
Kayani disclaims any political ambitions and the Americans take him at his word. But the bemused reader could be forgiven for asking in which other democracy the army chief would be the ultimate arbiter of key decisions?
Demonising Zardari is easy. Because of his reputation, his skill in matters of arcane finance, he lends himself easily not just to denunciation but caricature. But his opponents would be doing themselves no favour by under-estimating him. In these cables – although anyone would be in his rights to disagree with how the Americans view the Pak domestic scene – he comes across as a smart operator.
I remember that in the run-up to the presidential election – this was when pressure was being mounted on Musharraf to quit – there was hardly anyone in Islamabad who thought that Zardari would propose his own name for president. But he outguessed his detractors and opponents.
Reflexive and blind anger is best left to outraged patriots. There is too much of unthinking anger, in the name of patriotism, in the media and among the non-voting middle class which regularly foams at the mouth about the state of the nation. But the first task of the professional observer should be dispassionate analysis. If this is sacrifised at the altar of anger, however well-justified, it is all too easy to get things wrong.
Of course our American friends are hardly detached observers. They have their own interests. And since they begin from the premise that Zardari is their best bet in Pakistan, their judgment is affected by this perception, something also reflected in the language of the cables.
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia may be forthright about Zardari – “if the head is rotten it affects the whole body” – and Prince Muhammad of the UAE may add his bit of colour to an assessment of the Pakistani leadership – “Zardari is dirty but not dangerous, Nawaz Sharif is not dirty but he is dangerous” – but left to themselves the Americans are more cautious about saying the same things about Zardari. Which makes sense given that on most issues they and Zardari are on the same page, reading almost from the same script.
Contrast this with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The Americans were never happy with him, not only because of the nuclear issue but other matters as well, a feeling which comes across clearly in the documents made public by the Iranian students when they seized the US embassy.
Incidentally, those documents too were considered a bombshell at the time but they are nothing compared to this. Earlier, the publication of Daniel Ellsburg’s Pentagon Papers had rocked the American political scene. But those papers were just about the Vietnam war, important as it was. The Wikileaks cables touch the entire gamut of US foreign policy. The guy behind this exposure, the anonymous hero of this drama, who has risked his personal safety in order to let the world be better informed, deserves the highest prize for bravery. At the same time, no praise is enough for Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks. Some things are real game-changers. Wikileaks is one of them.
And, by the way, the US need not feel ashamed. Such a comprehensive act of whistle-blowing could only have happened in the US. Which says something about the US and its political system. Imagine an ISI whistle-blower. Would we ever hear of him again?
No one has exposed the follies of the American Empire more and with greater force and clarity, or been more scathing critics of the same follies, than Americans themselves. While mainstream opinion in the US, what passes for conventional and received wisdom, is very powerful and it is not easy to take sides against it, there is also a powerful current of counter-opinion that one can find in the US. Although, it is true, at times one has to try a bit hard to discover it.
In any event, American hegemony over the last century and now has been as much about economic and military muscle as about the power of culture and ideas. Even as we excoriate the US for many of its policies – none more bitterly destructive than George Bush’s twin wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – we should bear this in mind.
Anyhow, for us in Pakistan, apart from the titillation these cables provide, they give rise to some urgent and uncomfortable questions. Why must we lay bare our feelings before others? Why must we take counsel with them on domestic matters? Why must American ambassadors be psychiatric consultants to every Pakistani leader, including chiefs of the army?
Before we can put our house in order we will have to overcome this mental dependence and learn to think for ourselves. If we were more true to ourselves there would be less need to lean and rely on others.
Source: The News, December 03, 2010