Pakistan’s Zardari wins mixed reviews with U.S. trip

September 29, 2008

President Asif Ali Zardari meets Alaska Governor Sarah Palin/Shannon StapletonDepending on who you read, Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari was either an embarrassment for trying to flirt with Sarah Palin during his trip to New York last week, or a street-smart wheeler-dealer bravely standing up to Islamist militancy after the assassination of his wife Benazir Bhutto.

Time revisits the encounter between Zardari and Palin – in which he told the vice-presidential candidate she was gorgeous and threatened to hug her in a scene now frequently being replayed on YouTube – writing that it led to Zardari being “pilloried at home as a source of national embarrassment and accused of sexism and impropriety”.

In contrast, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen  was fulsome in his praise of a man filling what he calls ’the most dangerous job on earth’. This is one of the most positive, if not the most positive, reviews I have ever read about Zardari.

President Zardari addresses UN General Assembly/Eric Thayer“My impression?” writes Cohen. “This guy’s very smart, street smart, a wheeler-dealer in an area full of them, secular, pro-American, committed to democracy, and brave. I never heard (former president Pervez) Musharraf frame Pakistan’s fight against terrorism with such candor. I believe he wants genuine conciliation with India and Afghanistan, essential to the region’s stability. (Positive meetings were held here with the Indian and Afghan leaders.). I care much less right now about his checkered past than about getting behind him for civilization’s sake.”

The Los Angeles Times says the jury is still out on whether Zardari, “an accidental president” thrust into the limelight by his wife’s assassination last year, can reinvent himself as a truly inspirational leader able to rally the country while also keeping the Pakistan Army on side. 

“In a country that has spent half its existence under military rule, Zardari, as a civilian leader, still maintains only tenuous control of the army,” it says.  The newspaper quotes Stephen Cohen, an expert on Pakistan at the Brookings Institution in Washington, as saying that “If the military doesn’t do what he wants it to do, he doesn’t have sovereignty.” Cohen adds: ”He’s been elected president, but that’s meaningless.”

As for Pakistan’s neighbours, Zardari seems to have won over Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who told CNN he sees a new opportunity to work with Pakistan to uproot militant sanctuaries on their shared border. This was in sharp contrast to Karzai’s  relationship with Musharraf, which was marked by both countries blaming the other for failing to crack down on the Taliban and al Qaeda.

And as for India? According to The Economic Times, India welcomed Zardari’s commitment to improving ties, but remained to be convinced that he could deliver on his promise to crack down on Islamist militants operating in both Afghanistan and Kashmir.  Adopting a similar line to that expressed by the Los Angeles Times, Indian newspapers have said that ”there are clearly ‘multiple centres of power’ now in Pakistan which makes it extremely difficult to be certain about deliverables.”

  

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