September 02, 2008

 Palace intrigues

Meanwhile, back in the court of the wittering, dying king, a nasty spat has broken out at the State department. Richard Boucher, the man in charge of the SE Asia desk, and Anne Patterson, the Ambassador to Pakistan, are furious at Zalmay Khalilzad, the UN representative. Apparently Khalilzad, who is close to the Bhutto clan, has been chatting with its current leader, Benazir's widower Asif Zardari, behind their backs.

A storm in a teacup? Normally it would be; but for two things.

Pakistan is surely the most sensitive country in the world for US diplomacy. It is infested with al-Qaeda and other jihadis; it has nuclear weapons and a history of spreading them around; it is locked in a permanent dispute with its nuclear-armed neighbour India over Kashmir; and has unstable and violent domestic politics. Khalilzad's little chats are very high-stakes poker. Any cock-up there is worrying. And Khalilzad in particular is Foggy Bottom's Red Adair, the guy they send in to put out the fires left by neocon idiots like Paul Bremer in Iraq and John Bolton at the UN.

Far more important is the fact of the leak that made the cock-up public knowledge. Whoever did this - and I would bet some mischief-making political appointee rather than the principals, who are senior career diplomats, professional survivors of the Bush years - has achieved several things:

* discrediting Khalilzad and to a lesser extent Boucher and Patterson;
* making it that much less likely that opposition politicians around the world will talk frankly to US diplomats;
* putting Asif Zardaris's prospects and even his life at greater risk.

Nice work. Perhaps it was a coup by Iranian intelligence? But who could tell the difference?

I question the judgement of NYT reporters Helene Cooper and Mark Mazzetti in going with a story that has little news value and damages US interests quite a lot. As so often with this Administration, reporters have been played by intriguing insiders. At least now they should go after the story of the leak.

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