US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s holiday reception was one of those occasions where all is not said. Some subjects are left unspoken for others to feel and draw their conclusions.
Pakistan was one such subject. Secretary Clinton stayed with her guests for more than two hours, meeting them individually and in groups. With some, she had brief formal chats. Others tried to engage her in longish discussions about subjects not usually discussed at such receptions and were politely dissuaded by her staff.
She did express good wishes for the Pakistani people, hoping that they will overcome their problems and come out stronger from the present crisis. She also mentioned the “extraordinary love and affection” Pakistanis around the world had for their country.
Taking cue from her, other US officials in the room also avoided commenting on the current situation in Pakistan or on US-Pakistan relations, which said a lot about the state of these relations.
Last year and the year before, Secretary Clinton and her staff were full of warmth and affection for Pakistan and its people. This warmth seems to have been replaced by concerns about Pakistan and its relations with the United States, although neither Secretary Clinton nor any other State Department official said so.
But most of the guests were private citizens, either members of the State Department press corps or former officials. They obviously did not have to be as careful as the secretary or her staff.
“I wish your politicians, generals and other rich Pakistanis had half of the love that ordinary Pakistanis do for their country,” said a journalist who has visited almost all major cities in Pakistan.
“I just do not understand how they justify not paying their taxes. Don’t they have a conscience?” asked another, who works for the financial wire of an international news agency.
And then came the question that every non-official guest at the party asked this correspondent: “Where do you see this relationship (US-Pakistan) going?”
Some waited for an answer. Others provided their own. “It is not going anywhere,” was the most common response.
“But it is not going away either,” I countered.
“Well, yes, but it is as good as dead,” said an Arab journalist.
And then came the icing on the cake, “hey enemy,” shouted an American journalist and an old friend as she saw me.
“Hey, I was just joking,” she added as she noticed a bewildered look on my face. “But relations are bad, right?” Another guest changed the subject. “Your media, what is wrong with it?” she asked. “They love half-cooked, sensational stories and they love to hate America.”
And this was a common complaint. Almost all agreed that the Pakistani media was not only irresponsible but “also vicious,” as a guest suggested.
So I had to defend even those I did not want to. “Not true. Not all are vicious or irresponsible,” I said. “We are not used to freedom, so we are still learning the ropes.”
“Be careful. You may get boxed in while learning the ropes,” said a guest as others laughed.
“What is happening to President Zardari,” asked a friend, realising that the discussion on the media was embarrassing me. “They are being unfair to him and the prime minister,” he added.
“Who are they?” asked a guest.
“The army, the judiciary and the media,” came the reply.
And this too was a general feeling.
It seemed that most people in the room saw the Memogate scandal in the context of Pakistan’s political history, which is full of military takeovers and incompetent civilian rulers.
“Corrupt, he is. Nobody in Washington doubts that,” said a member of the State Department press corps. “But he is also an elected president. It’s about time you end this game. Let him complete his tenure and elect a new government when the time comes.”
“But many in Pakistan feel that this government is so corrupt that there may not be another chance. It may cause the boat to capsise,” said another journalist who also had visited Pakistan. “He probably is the most unpopular president in the country’s history.”
“May be. But they need to have a device within the system to deal with such things. There cannot, and should not, be another military takeover,” said the guest who started the Memogate discussion.
And nobody in the audience could explain why Mansoor Ijaz, the Pakistani-American businessman who started the Memogate scandal, went public with what he claims was a secret mission. Almost all also felt that whatever he says should be taken with a pinch of salt.
But one person who remained unmentioned throughout the evening was Pakistan’s former ambassador, Husain Haqqani. It seemed as if Washington had already forgotten him and moved ahead.
The author is a correspondent for Dawn, based in Washington, DC.