The past few days we have witnessed a lot of panic about the state of US-Pakistan relations following the release of secret diplomatic cables by the website Wikileaks. In Pakistan, right-wing conspiracy theorists see the documents as proof of a secret plan to seize the nation's nuclear assets; their counterparts on the American right-wing see the documents as proof that Pakistan is secretly working with terrorist militants. In actuality, the documents tell a very different story -- one in which US-Pakistan relations are stronger than ever before.
The infamous Julian Assange of the website Wikileaks earned his first taste of fame when he posted on the Internet a secret military video that appears to show US soldiers shooting down innocent, unarmed men in Iraq in 2007. The release of the video was a thorn in the side of the American government which certainly did not want any more bad publicity for its actions in Iraq, but it was defended by human rights supporters and many in the world community for exposing a cover-up and holding the American military accountable for its actions.
Assange seems to have delighted in the attention that followed, and he has since orchestrated massive dumps of secret documents smuggled out of American government offices. What he hoped to achieve with this latest release is unclear -- there is no claim of any specific wrongdoing by the American diplomatic corps. Rather, it seems Assange simply enjoys his time in the lime light.
If he hoped to embarrass American or other leaders, Julian Assange probably failed. Secretary Clinton was told by a foreign counterpart, "Don't worry about it. You should see what we say about you." Pakistan's Foreign Ministry called the release of diplomatic cables "irresponsible". But everyone seems to agree that what has been revealed is fairly well known to those who closely follow world affairs.
That's not to say that it hasn't strained relationships; it has -- but not for the reasons we like to think. South Asia Advisor for the United States Institute of Peace Moeed Yusuf, quoted on the blog CHUP! - Changing Up Pakistan saying that what is revealed by the cables is nothing particularly new, but warns:
...that is not how it will be presented to the man on the street in Pakistan. This will likely fuel even more conspiracy theories in the country.
And that it has. Pakistani newspaper The Nation, prone to anti-Americanism and wild conspiracy theories, claims that the cables confirm their own paranoia:
The disclosures of the US attempt to remove highly enriched uranium from the Pakistani reactor confirm the suspicions of certain political circles in Pakistan that the US has an eye on our nuclear assets, and while doing everything it can to strengthen India, defence-wise and economically, at the same time, it wants to enfeeble Pakistan. That would not only fulfil (sic) the hegemonic designs of India in the region and "solve" the Kashmir dispute, the bone of contention between the two, but also help promote the US strategic ambitions vis-à-vis China. Once Beijing's fast friend in the subcontinent is rendered powerless in the political game and its adversary emboldened with renewed strength, New Delhi would have no reservations, at least that is the assumption of policymakers in Washington, in making a bold bid to scuttle the Chinese relentless rise to global prominence.
But what did we really learn from the Wikileaked cables? We learned that US-Pakistani relations are fragile and clouded by mutual suspicion and frustration, but each side is working tirelessly to find common ground and to improve trust and cooperation. We learned that the Pakistani military leadership is a powerful political force in a country with a weak civilian government, but is refusing calls by some opposition leaders to step in and is supporting the democratic process as it takes root.
Even on the issue of old uranium stockpiles in Pakistan, what we learned is that there were talks going on to determine the best way to ensure that terrorists don't have access to nuclear material while protecting Pakistan's rights and national interests.
We also learned, however, that Mr. Moeed Yusuf knows what he's talking about. A primary concern in the talks was how any cooperation would be treated by the media.
In May 2009, Ambassador Anne W. Patterson reported that Pakistan was refusing to schedule a visit by American technical experts because, as a Pakistani official said, "if the local media got word of the fuel removal, 'they certainly would portray it as the United States taking Pakistan's nuclear weapons,' he argued."
Pakistan has a strong and robust defense capability, including a powerful nuclear deterrent larger even that India's. Transferring some uranium that has been stored next to an old research reactor for years is an awfully strange way of neutering Pakistan's nuclear capability. Actually, what this entire issue demonstrates is that a major obstacle to improved US-Pakistan relations is the media hysteria that is inevitably invented by journalists more interested in personal fame than the public good.
It is instructive to learn from the Wikileaks documents that despite fears and concerns about Pakistan's ties to militant groups, however unfounded those fears may be, the Americans have turned a new leaf and are legitimately dedicated to supporting democratic process and not repeating old mistakes by supporting a military coup. Pakistanis are devoted to seeing their nation succeed despite the challenges they face. It turns out, the Americans are, too.
Likewise, the Wikileaks documents clearly depict that most of Pakistan's civilian and military leaders are willing to look beyond America's foreign policy follies of the past, and interact with their American counterparts as friends and colleagues. Dedicated to promoting the interests of Pakistan, they deal with the Americans just as any businessmen approach a mutually beneficial transaction.
Unfortunately, the cables also suggest that some political figures such as opposition leader Nawaz Sharif play to populist anti-Americanism in public while making quite different overtures to American officials when they think no one is listening. If Wikileaks has taught us anything, its that we need less duplicity and more honesty from our leaders.
Diplomacy is not handled on the front page of newspapers or by TV talk show hosts, and sensitive issues between nations are not decided on Internet message boards. The men and women who serve their respective nations in Embassies and foreign offices around the world are working tirelessly to represent their nation's interests in the context of an increasingly interconnected and interdependent global community. With regards to US-Pakistan relations, the lesson from the latest Wikileaks documents is that the two nations are desperately trying to overcome their mutual concerns to find common ground and work together to make the world a safer, more prosperous place. Rather than turning up our noses at the process, we should be applauding.