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Exposure and duplicity

December 15, 2010

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FOR Pakistan's suffering citizens, for decades denied their fundamental human rights and deprived of most worldly pleasures, any entertainment — no matter how vicarious — is eagerly sought.

Consequently, the recent WikiLeaks disclosures have been seized upon, for they go far beyond exposing human foibles. The common man, who has scant respect for the ruling elite and suspects it of all kinds of misdemeanours, finds in these cables both confirmation of his worst fears as well as some explanations for the country's ills.

To the initiated, there is little that is shocking. Nevertheless, the depths to which the privileged are willing to stoop to achieve their personal gains constitute the nation's horror story. Yet the story is not without its share of the farcical, and this comes from the reaction of those caught out in their chicanery and duplicity.

Some, like the honourable prime minister, have claimed that this is fake information and need not be taken seriously. Others have taken refuge behind the much abused pretext that they constitute a conspiracy against Pakistan (or even better, against Islam). These are dishonest observations that bear little relevance to reality, as anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the workings of diplomacy would know.

A diplomat's primary responsibility is to meet every one who matters in the country of accreditation and to report on all developments, so as to enable his or her Foreign Office to advise the political leadership accordingly. This explains why there are both written rules and unwritten conventions that seek to regulate contacts with foreign diplomats within clearly understood boundaries. Consequently most countries, especially developed ones, discourage foreign ambassadors from frequent interaction, except when required for official business and according to some degree of reciprocity.

Pakistan's track record has, however, been abysmal. Our 'hospitality' borders on the ridiculous, with even heads of state and chief executives priding themselves on the frequency of their exchanges with foreign diplomats. More often than not, these meetings are used to bare their souls and discuss the country's secrets, either to promote their personal agenda or to ridicule their political rivals.

While it is easy to criticise the current cast of characters strutting across the political landscape, the fact is that 200 years of British colonial rule have left an indelible imprint on us all. This is evident in our servility before the powerful and our contempt for the weak. This has become our second nature, especially among those from the feudal classes, which accounts for the eagerness with which our leaders demonstrate their subservience to the Americans and obeisance to Arab rulers.

Other than prime ministers Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Mian Nawaz Sharif, few can claim to have withstood external pressures. It is doubly sad therefore that Bhutto's political heir should have confided in the US ambassador that with a mere phone call, he had ensured that Pakistan did not “oppose the US-India civil nuclear deal at the nuclear suppliers meeting”.

Even Benazir Bhutto's success in the 1988 general elections would not necessarily have translated into the assumption of office without Washington's forceful intervention. Recall that two US special envoys were dispatched to Islamabad to 'assure' the then president and army chief that she would not disturb the existing arrangement. Not surprisingly, the US ambassador became such a dominant player in the country's political life that he enjoyed the sobriquet of 'viceroy'.

It is also a fact that Benazir Bhutto was totally trusting of American friends who would not only be present in official meetings but be made privy to state secrets. Lest the reader have any doubt about the veracity of this claim, former ambassador Marker's book Quiet Diplomacy is recommended.

Yet nothing can match the servility demonstrated by the general-president Musharraf, who was brazen enough to seize power from an elected prime minister. Nevertheless, he was so diffident in his dealings with the US that in one phone call from the then secretary of state Colin Powell in the wake of 9/11, he agreed readily to the most onerous US demands without even the pretence of consulting his confidants. And it was to assistant secretary Boucher (a mere joint secretary) that both Benazir Bhutto and Musharraf turned to in order to finalise their political understanding.

Not surprisingly, the WikiLeaks exposure has led to calls for fresh rules to be drafted to prevent such occurrences. However, we already have enough of these. What is required is a change in the mindset of our rulers. They must learn to trust their own people and recognise that their sworn responsibility is to promote and protect the national interest, rather than their own or that of a foreign benefactor.

As a former career diplomat, it is not pleasing to see diplomacy's primary instrument —accurate reporting and intelligent assessment — coming under such massive assault. This is likely to inhibit diplomats from being totally honest in their reporting and guarded in their observations. Nevertheless, the revealed information should constitute a treasure trove for research scholars and political scientists.

While the leaked cables have caused deep embarrassment in many world capitals, revealing leaders as incompetent, dishonest and corrupt, they also reveal a superpower that does not hesitate to cheat, lie and double-cross its friends. Without compunction, it sanctions torture, kidnaps innocent civilians and sabotages elected governments, all in the name of peace, democracy and human rights.

The cables also confirm the view held by some scholars that though an imperial power, the US appears tired, confused and overstretched, living on borrowed money and failing to uphold its claims of moral superiority. Prof Kennedy had warned of the dangers of this in the mid-1980s, while more recently, historian Alfred McCoy observed that “so delicate is the ecology of power that when things start to go truly bad, empires unravel at unholy speed”. While that may still be far off, no wonder Secretary of State Clinton denounced the leaks as a “criminal act”, while the Republican presidential hopeful Sarah Palin called for the WikiLeaks editor to be hunted down as a criminal.

The writer is a former ambassador.