A snub to Negroponte


Tuesday, November 20, 2007

US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte's hyped-up visit and all his blunt talking to President Musharraf seems to have hardly made any impression on the hardened general who is now in a self-propelled no-nonsense mood, and mode, going about his business without caring about anyone, not even his benefactors in Washington. Mr Negroponte just stopped short of describing his visit as a failure, explaining to the media before he left that "in diplomacy we don't get instant replies when we have these kinds of dialogue. I'm sure the president is seriously considering the exchange we had". Compared to the instant reply General Musharraf gave after 9/11 to ditch the Taliban, the hesitation here is in stark contrast. General Musharraf's considered response was his cryptic remark in Quetta, a few hours after his meeting, that the country was more important than the constitution and democracy and his message to Mr Negroponte and his boss George W Bush was clear: "I am saving the country, don't bother me now with sermons of democracy." Of course, the general also may have had in mind the fact that Mr Negroponte was among the most senior of American diplomats who first came out with a statement that implicitly backed the emergency when he told a US Congress subcommittee that Musharraf was an "indispensable ally".

While Mr Negroponte's visit may have been a small embarrassment for General Musharraf, it gave him an opportunity to show his critics that he was not a US stooge. Musharraf has always been saying this but his actions in the past, more often than not, seemed to suggest that he was following a script written in Washington with much of the rest of the country opposing his stance. The public departure now has interestingly come on an issue on which the general is virtually alone, with the rest of the country up in arms against the emergency and demanding restoration of their basic rights and freedoms. Even Musharraf's supporters and collaborators like Mushahid Hussain and Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain have voiced their opposition and resentment. Ironically after a long while, this time the US is on the side of the majority of Pakistanis. However, the general has decided to ignore everyone, including George W Bush, since his own self-interest is involved.

One point on which both Mr Negroponte and General Musharraf seem to have agreed is how to bring PPP Chairperson Benazir Bhutto back on track, away from her recent confrontationist mode with the government. The message that the US diplomat conveyed to Ms Bhutto was clear. First he did not meet her personally (a concession Musharraf may have demanded) and then in his departure statement he asked both sides to restart their talks and ease the atmosphere of brinkmanship and political confrontation. These public messages were immediately followed up by the American ambassador rushing to meet Ms Bhutto on Monday. America is thus making a full effort to continue providing General Musharraf all the political, logistic and diplomatic support to override this crisis, including pushing his rivals to sit and talk with him and clearly this is something that will come as a relief for the Musharraf camp. Yet Mr Negroponte's main demands of lifting the emergency, taking off his uniform, releasing political prisoners and restoration of media freedoms, still have to be met. For once Washington is standing on the side of the Pakistani people and if it continues to take a firm position, putting some meat into its loud talk, it may yet be able to wash some of its past sins which have made it a villain in the eyes of many Pakistanis. Such opportunities, for hated big powers to repair their image, do not come often. Washington has been provided one by none other than one of its most 'indispensable' allies.