Amid mistakes, Zardari’s gains and losses

By Shaheen Sehbai

WASHINGTON: Strategic mistakes were committed during the 8-day New York visit of President Asif Ali Zardari which may cost Pakistan dearly, but hardly anyone in the presidential camp is prepared to own these mistakes, some deliberate and some not.

One of these, which could haunt Pakistan as early as the elections on Nov 4, was the well calculated manner in which the Democratic Party was ignored and President Zardari was kept away from meeting policymakers and think tanks of the party which already controls the House of Representatives and which would win the Senate and the White House, according to most opinion polls.

Handlers of President Zardari say the leaders of the Democratic Party, Senators Barack Obama and Joe Biden talked to President Zardari on the telephone and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright came to see him while Mr Zardari called on former President Bill Clinton where his influential wife Hillary also joined them, but these discussions were more cosmetic than substantial as compared to the long line of Republicans of all shades who were coming in and out of the presidential suite at the Hotel Intercontinental Barclays in Manhattan.

Independent analysts say the Clintons are important with a very high international and domestic profile, but they are not going to call the shots in the Obama Administration in which Senators Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, Ted Kennedy and John Kerry, both of Massachusetts, are the key players and President Zardari was not allowed or persuaded to meet or talk to any one of them.

In fact Senator John Kerry is being tipped in many circles as the next secretary of state in the Obama Administration or definitely the Chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Attempts by some Pakistani-Americans to arrange a quiet evening with him, and some of the other important players, were shot down as of no consequence, though Kerry had agreed to meet Mr Zardari.

The fact that John Kerry and Joe Biden were the main players on the Democratic side to help Benazir Bhutto to get back to Pakistan under the Musharraf regime was conveniently and easily forgotten.

Joe Biden, who has moved the Biden-Lugar bill in Congress to provide Pakistan a huge $15 billion in the coming years, should actually have been the most sought after leader by the Pakistani presidential camp, but no advance preparation was made and last minute attempts could only result in a telephonic conversation with President Zardari, which is by no means equivalent to a face to face meeting.

Influential Pakistani-Americans who are great friends of key Democrats mince no words in complaining that they were deliberately kept away from President Zardari because the people who were in charge believe that the Republican candidate, John McCain, would win the presidential election and thus there would be a continuity in the present policy of President George Bush as far as Pakistan is concerned.

“This could turn out to be a huge and critical misjudgment, and it could cost Pakistan immensely, but President Zardari cannot be blamed for the lapse,” a member of the presidential delegation confided. “How can anyone bet on John McCain even if he is a sure winner because the purse strings would be controlled by a Democratic House and the Senate anyway,” the member said.

The top Pakistani lobbyist, Mr Mark Siegel, who was a Benazir loyalist for many years, is a low level operative as far as the Democratic party hierarchy is concerned, because he himself is known to be a proud Republican, often described by some as even a Neo-con. Since his $70,000 or so per month fee required that he arrange meetings of the Pakistani president with decision makers, he lined up mostly Republican friends.

“Almost 90 per cent of those who called on the president were Republicans,” an official who came from Pakistan and stayed in the same hotel with President Zardari recalled. “If Obama wins the White House most of them would be irrelevant and redundant and Pakistan will have to re-start its lobbying effort from square one.”

The Democrats were not the only ones who were kept out of the isolated presidential quarters. Little skirmishes continued on the sidelines between insecure members of the presidential team. The foreign minister, who had almost landed a Harvard University invitation to give an address, was short changed by some who did not like, or want, Shah Mahmood Qureshi to get prominence of any kind.

The top PPP leadership in US, including some very influential Pakistani-American US citizens who could have a positive impact for Pakistan, were annoyed because President Zardari did not address them, even for a few minutes, and they were left high and dry in confusion because their party event had been organised and controlled by the Pakistan Embassy. They had gathered in New York from all over the US and even Canada but left totally disappointed and frustrated.

The entire media team which came from Pakistan was not allowed to meet the president even once for a background briefing about his activities and high profile meetings with world leaders. A news conference was all that the media got and most of the important events took place after that conference. No one was even there to explain the all-important joint statement issued after his meeting with the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and after some voices of protest were raised, the foreign secretary gave a briefing at the end of the tour.

President Zardari’s meeting with the Iranian President Ahmedinejad was probably the high point of his New York stay as it was strongly opposed by some US officials as well as some Pakistanis, more loyal to them than us. Yet Zardari met the Iranian president and the meeting was said to be so successful that the Iranians were jubilant about it.

“The decision to go ahead with the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline, without the Indians, was so exciting for the Iranians, they loved Mr Zardari,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mottki told some think tank people after the meeting.

Among the positives of the visit was Mr Zardari’s intense interaction with world leaders who were eager to meet him as the new leader of Pakistan. It must have given a raw Zardari tremendous confidence to meet with these leaders and not to have committed any major blunder, except the small but overblown Sarah Palin guffaw.

The Friends of Pakistan was also a timely and successful initiative though it was marred by a couple of diplomatic rebuffs–one by the Saudis who did not attend the meeting and the other by the Chinese who said the concept and scope of the forum should be provided to them in writing so that they could study it deeply before making any commitments.

The Saudis were reportedly unhappy because the event was co-hosted by the UAE and that brought in some intra-Arab rivalries. But a source said the Secretary of State Condi Rice and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband assured President Zardari that they would persuade the Saudis to join the group at its next meeting in Abu Dhabi.

The most discouraging comment, however, came from the Indian PM’s flight over the Atlantic when Manmohan Singh or officials close to him quietly told the media that President Bush and PM Singh both expressed apprehensions whether Mr Zardari would be able to deliver on what he promises.

Source: Daily Jang, 6/10/2008

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