Candid But Perilous World of Diplomatic Cables

The recent tranche of cables from WikiLeaks is as revealing as it is sobering about Pakistan, its status as a nuclear weapons power, its ties with the lone superpower the United States, and Pakistan's president, Asif Ali Zardari.

Zardari extracts little respect from his countrymen as well as a devastating comment from at least one head of a foreign government, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. But Saudi Arabia is not just another foreign government. It has been a powerful financial and political supporter of that country for several decades.

These cables uncover an unsuccessful US effort since 2007 to transfer highly enriched uranium from a highly secretive Pakistani nuclear reactor. Americans remain fearful that the uranium might be diverted for the production of an "illicit nuclear device," meaning a device manufactured by al-Qaida. According to the US Ambassador in Pakistan, Ann W. Patterson, that country was not even willing to schedule a meeting with the American nuclear technicians for a possible discussion, fearing that such a meeting would be misconstrued by its mass media as America's attempt to take nuclear weapons from Pakistan.

The unstated part of this episode is that there is no trust between the United States —which claims to be so dependent on winning its war against the Taliban in Afghanistan on its Pakistani "ally" — and Pakistan, whose cooperation is truly vital for any American victory but is getting increasingly difficult in the making.

One cable gets to the heart of the problem when it describes the dilemma of the Obama administration "to sort out which Pakistanis are trustworthy partners and against al-Qaida." There is little newsworthiness related to this American dilemma, except that stakes for America are very high this time. It only adds to the precarious nature of the relationship between Washington and Islamabad regarding an ongoing war, which, in turn, will play a major role in deciding whether President Barack Obama will win a second term or will go down in the history as another one-term president.

As if Pakistan does not have enough trouble winning the trust of its major Western interlocutor, the United States, WikiLeaks reports a cable in which King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia manifests his utter contempt for President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan, who is as popular in Pakistan as the proverbial plague, but who continues his dismal role as the head of that state.

Speaking to an Iraqi official, King Abdullah about Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, King Abdullah said, "You and Iraq are in my heart, but that man is not." The king then called Zardari "the greatest obstacle to that country's progress and added, "When the head is rotten," he said, "it affects the whole body."

It is hard to estimate how much damage the Saudi monarch's contempt for Zardari will do to the prospects for his continued survival. It is possible that the Saudi rulers have nurtured similar sentiments toward the past rulers of Pakistan, but continued their friendship and support for that country through generous financial assistance.

What is different in this particular instance is that Saudi Arabia has little doubt about how irrelevant Zardari has become for Pakistan's complex relations with the United States and to the war in Afghanistan, which remains an issue of high strategic import for Saudi Arabia, and that fact has become a part of international public knowledge thanks to the WikiLeaks. Under such circumstances, one can state with reasonable certainty that Zardari's days in power may be numbered.

What should worry Zardari is the fact that, with all its public commitment to democracy, the United States has unabashedly demonstrated in the world of Islam that it supports that form of government only as long as it serves its strategic purpose. However, when it does not, America has little use for it.

One can recall how easily the Bush administration dismissed the election of Hamas in occupied Palestine in January 2006 and showered its diplomatic goodies on Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah movement, which had little electoral credibility among the Palestinian populace. Hamas refused to negotiate with Israel, while Abbas demonstrated his near eagerness to carry out negotiations with Israel, even though his organization stopped being a legitimate representative of the Palestinian people in January 2006.

Applying the "Hamas rule" to Pakistan, it is very likely that the Zardari government may come to an end, with another weak civilian government taking office. In the meantime, the Obama administration would continue to do its real business with the Pakistani Army, which, along with Allah and America, always played a crucial role in the continued existence of Pakistan.