WASHINGTON DIARY: DC debacle — Dr Manzur Ejaz


It has been repeated over and over by many journalists that Mr Gilani knew that he is not adequately equipped with speaking and comprehending English. If that was the case, he should have spoken in his own language. The host government is always obliged to provide a translator

As far as public speaking goes, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani’s trip to Washington DC was a fiasco, leaving multitudes of questions unanswered. Why, on every occasion during his busy schedule, was Mr Gilani completely unprepared and uninformed? Why was Pakistan’s Foreign Office completely absent from the scene? And why did no one come to his rescue when he was in deep trouble? Was this disaster engineered or was it the result of inexperience and incompetence?

People familiar with prime ministerial visits know that the foreign minister, secretary of the Foreign Office and the highest officials in charge of the US desk accompany the prime ministers on such trips to Washington and other important capitals without exception.

How come none of these officials found time to fly with Mr Gilani to Washington DC? Why did Shah Mahmood Qureshi, a person gifted in tackling delicate situations and in his command of the English language choose to be elsewhere on this occasion? Not only was he absent but other top officials of his ministry were also nowhere to be found.

As a matter of routine, experienced diplomats travel to the host country a few days before the visit of the president or the prime minister. They chalk out the details of the trip and prepare briefings for the visiting official. It is evident that no such preparations were in place when Mr Gilani arrived in DC.

The US is perhaps the most important country for Pakistani diplomacy. The most experienced diplomats therefore are given assignments in Washington, usually after having served in other important capitals like Beijing, Delhi and Moscow. Such a track record is considered important because of the sensitivities involved. Of course, outsiders like Dr Maleeha Lodhi did quite well but only with the help and cooperation of senior diplomats like Zamir Akram and many others who had experience in other important capitals.

Such experience was noticeably lacking among the managers of this trip.

Experienced diplomats and competent managers always come to rescue the visiting dignitary when they get stuck. Usually, the ambassador or the highest official from the Foreign Office will rise and stand with the dignitary in trouble. Sometimes even fake emergencies are created to get them out of the troubled situation.

At one such occasion, Gen Jahangir Karamat, then ambassador to the US, took charge when Gen Musharraf got into a bitter confrontation with the audience in New York. One would expect that someone would have similarly come forward to save Mr Gilani from humiliation at the Council on Foreign Relation’s presentation but that did not happen.

In general, the prime minister was so unprepared that according to witnesses he was asking his handlers what the next programme was during elevator rides. The prime minister’s personal aides and well wishers were seen sweating anxiously throughout the trip.

Of course the ultimate responsibility lies with the visiting official himself. If the composition of the crew travelling with him is not competent enough, he has to bear the responsibility for his wrong choices. Nonetheless, it does not absolve the other functionaries who created this mess.

It has been repeated over and over by many journalists that Mr Gilani knew that he is not adequately equipped with speaking and comprehending English. If that was the case, he should have spoken in his own language. The host government is always obliged to provide a translator. Or he could have brought one with him.

The National Assembly and the Senate should pass a resolution that Pakistani heads of the state or chief executives rely on Pakistani language(s) in negotiations in foreign capitals and use translators. It will provide a level playing field for the indigenous politicians who rise to prominent positions. Of course, if someone is well versed in a foreign language, they can be permitted to converse in the host country’s language. Dignitaries from powerful countries and even poor small states of Latin America never speak English in parleys with Washington: they always communicate through translators.

Will the sky fall if we do the same?

The writer can be reached at manzurejaz@yahoo.com

Source: Daily Times, 6/8/2008

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