NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, left, with Pakistan’s President Pakistan Asif Ali Zardari (Official NATO photo)
One can debate whether it was a full-blown snub or just a partial ticking-off but Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari ought to have felt hot under his collar at the way he was treated by US President Barack Obama here in Chicago.
Short of asking him “Must you be here?” Obama did everything within the bounds of diplomatic decorum that Zardari should have interpreted as, “Must you be here?”
Since this is just a blog, and hence not governed by the severe journalistic standards I practice in my professional writing elsewhere, I am going to draw a deliberately exaggerated comparison to describe the way Zardari was treated. Bless the blogs for they let you be blessedly direct.
In the mid 1980s I happened to be on the set of a Hindi movie where the director was shooting a dinner scene. There was a lavish spread of food and beverages. Being a party situation, there was a large number of extras milling about with empty plates and glasses. As the camera was about to roll, the man in charge of coordinating the extras, who is often a retired extra himself, gave one last minute instruction, which was utterly shorn of nuance and therefore very effective: “Khana khaneka nahi. Sirf dekhne ka.” (Don’t eat the food. Just look at it).
Zardari’s plight at the just concluded NATO summit was not that different from the extras. Obama did not try to hide his displeasure as was evident in at least two distinct ways. One was that the US president did not meet Zardari one on one citing the shortness of time.
The other was during the session at the NATO summit for public thanks when Obama pointedly left out Pakistan from the list of countries helping the mission in Afghanistan.
"I want to welcome the presence of President Karzai, as well as officials from central Asia and Russia — nations that have an important perspective and that continue to provide critical transit for ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) supplies," Obama said.
To ensure that his displeasure with Pakistan and Zardari was fully registered by all concerned Obama even said that he did not want to “paper over the real challenges.” Obama also rubbed it in that he had a "very brief” exchange with Zardari, “as we were walking into the summit."
All this makes me wonder whether the whole purpose of inviting Zardari was to pointedly ignore him. I am not privy to what might have transpired between the two leaderships behind-the-scenes but it is clear that the US president was unusually bent on showing his displeasure. To be fair, Zardari was invited by the NATO leadership but that would be splitting hairs because nothing happens in the NATO without the US approving it first.
I find it baffling that the president of a strategically decisive state is extended a last minute invitation and when he accepts and attends he is all but asked to stand in a corner. In an interview with CNN, Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai described the interaction between him, Obama and Zardari as "three-way photograph taking…just a photo opportunity." This “three-way photograph taking” had to be among the more awkward ménage à trois images in the history of diplomacy.
While I am on the subject let me repeat something I have been saying for a long time. Being afforded a personal meeting with the US president on the sidelines of a summit has become some sort of a defining benchmark for any head of state to judge his or her own importance.As a result, not being granted one becomes, by implication, a snub if you believe in this sort of non-sense. It is time to stop projecting such personal meetings as a gesture of near divine munificence. We all live in a world where everyone needs everyone else, some more so than the others but still let’s not make it into a measuring rod.
It is difficult to predict how Zardari’s less than amiable visit to Chicago would go down when he reaches home but it is safe to say that it will not make many particularly proud. On this side of the divide Obama could not be unaware of the potential risks of stepping on Zardari’s already sore toes.