Sep 292008

The office of the president carries with it a dignity which must be preserved at all costs. And dignity is neither a function of pusillanimity nor of belligerence

First it was Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani who drew much laughter during his maiden official visit to the United States. Now President Asif Ali Zardari has got the wits’ tongues in that country wagging.

Disaster it seems is as soon begotten of unlettered under-confidence as semi-lettered over-confidence.

Just like Zardari found Sarah Palin “gorgeous” and commented that if the handler from his entourage insisted on a long handshake for the cameras “I might hug”, he now thinks the world is a much safer place under President George Bush’s leadership.

For the Palin comment we are told he didn’t know the mic was on which is clearly an apology not for having made the comment but the fact that the comment should have remained off the record. In a world where cameras on a cricket field can now pick up players tampering with the seam, sledging and adjusting their underwear, the president of a country needs to be a little more careful about what he says and where his hands go.

Nothing is off the record.

Now to the Bush comment. Even Bush will have difficulty agreeing with that assessment in moments of privacy. In fact, Zardari’s two other comments in the same interview show that he didn’t really mean what he had said. “It could have been worse,” he added. Later in the interview he warned that “the axis of evil is growing”.

In King Lear Edgar says: “And worse I may be yet: the worst is not /So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’” So yes, worse it may be but as Alice would say, it could have been worser. Equally, and that’s where the rub lies, the world could have been better.

Also, we can either believe the world is safer today than it was in 2001 or that the axis of evil, whatever that term means, is growing. It is somewhat difficult to square the two unless one can penetrate through Zardari’s logic.

The attempt here is not to be facetious but to point to one very important fact: the office of the president carries with it a dignity which must be preserved at all costs. And dignity is neither a function of pusillanimity nor of belligerence. Between being “President Ka-daari” and “President Ahmadadadenejad” there are many workable options.

Nuclear strategy refers to these two extremes as “quitting” and “maximum response” and considers both undesirable.

In all fairness to Zardari, though, let’s list two positives also. His speech at the UN was a good one. “Just as we will not let Pakistan’s territory be used by terrorists for attacks against our people and our neighbours, we cannot allow our territory and our sovereignty to be violated by our friends. Unilateral actions of great powers should not inflame the passion of allies.”

Whoever formulated this did a brilliant job. Equally impressive was Zardari’s positive signalling to India. But the masterstroke was the reference to “flares” when asked about the incident, confirmed by Admiral Michael Mullen, that Pakistani troops opened fire on two NATO helicopters that had intruded Pakistani territory.

“You mean the flares. Sometimes the border is so mixed that they don’t realise they have crossed the border.” Perfect response. There was absolutely no need to press the point. Diplomacy is a game of pretences and signalling. Note the response to his comments by Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state: “The border is very, very unclear, I know.”

You do what needs be done — no more. It was necessary to open fire. It was not necessary at this point to actually bring down a chopper. Neither was it necessary to boast about it. The message delivered at the UN, coupled with action on the ground, was enough. It was understood.

Note Adm Mullen’s statement: “I am hard-pressed to see a set of circumstances where there would be any kind of sustained fight between two allies…Now more than ever is a time for teamwork, for calm.”

This performance, because it is impressive, contrasts sharply with the Palin and Bush comments, both of which are gaffes everyone could do without.

In fact, far from the world being a safer place, it is more unsafe now than it was even on September 11, 2001. Forget sentiment and analysis outside the US. This is the assessment by experts and analysts within the US and is one point on which non-official America agrees with official America.

It was a good opportunity for Zardari to press the point about a rethink. He touched upon it in his UN speech when he talked about a comprehensive approach to tackling the issue of terrorism. There is ample evidence spread out everywhere, from US national intelligence estimates to the Pew Global Attitude assessments, about both the failure of the current strategy in fighting terrorism and the increasing unpopularity of the United States and its policies across the world.

Indeed, our own emphasis on taking an integrated approach to counter-insurgency in the tribal areas and, by extension, in Afghanistan, is a good starting point to press for a larger review of current US policies. As the president of a country that finds itself in the belly of the beast and which is most affected by US actions and reactions, it was Zardari’s job to deliver this message forcefully and consistently.

The Bush comment therefore leaves much to be desired. Again, how about trying out the options between sock it to them and suck up to them.

Now that Zardari is president and, under the current constitutional arrangement also the head of national security and commander-in-chief, he needs to learn this art and learn it fast.

Ejaz Haider is Consulting Editor of The Friday Times and Op-Ed Editor of Daily Times. He can be reached at


Source: Daily Times, 29/9/2008

 Posted by at 11:47 am

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