The Land of No Good Options

The WikiLeaks cables show a U.S. diplomatic corps adept at diagnosing the big problems of American foreign policy -- and a country hopeless at solving them.

When I arrive in a foreign country to write a piece, I ask journalistic colleagues, NGO types, and whatnot which diplomats are worth talking to. If it's a country in the developing world, I usually get directed to the embassy of the ex-colonial master and often to the Brits, even outside the Commonwealth. (British diplomats have a reputation for acumen which might mostly have to do with their accent and air of amused detachment.) As for the United States, people will say, "There's a political attaché who's been here for years and really gets around." What about the ambassador? "Only if you feel the need to touch base." The feeling is that the U.S. ambassador is so swaddled in security and bureaucracy, so restricted to the la-di-da realms of the country, that he or she might as well be living in the clouds.

WikiLeaks has done U.S. ambassadors a favor by allowing us to read their homework. And it turns out that there's more to be said for the privileged perch they occupy than I had realized. None of the cables I've read so far sound like George Kennan, much less John Quincy Adams, whose dispatches from the Court of Prussia at the turn of the 19th century were devoured back home, including by President George Washington in retirement; either U.S. diplomacy no longer attracts literary intellectuals, or they keep it to themselves. But they do show a high level of clarity, of analytical rigor, even occasionally of amused detachment.

The chief flaw the embassy officials exhibit in the documents is one to which journalists, too, are very much prone: the tendency to give too much credence to the people you like. The diplomats in Tbilisi who, as the New York Times points out, swallowed Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's version of the 2008 war with Russia whole, may have been guilty of believing what they wished to be true. So, in a very different way, was the departing U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe, Christopher Dell, who in 2007 optimistically predicted President Robert Mugabe's impending demise. But none (so far) are clueless; as yet there's no Ellsworth Bunker reporting from Saigon on the battle for hearts and minds. The cables may have the unexpected effect of countering the stereotype of diplomats as lickspittles with a mastery of etiquette.

I can think of no better example than Anne Patterson, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan until this past October. Patterson was a career diplomat; I first met her when she was acting U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 2004 to 2005, and then again in Pakistan in 2008. Our conversation in New York had been notably bland, and in Islamabad she seemed quite comfortable defending -- off the record, of course -- the George W. Bush administration's unwavering support for Gen. Pervez Musharraf in the midst of massive demonstrations calling for civilian democratic government, a policy that had come to seem increasingly tone-deaf.

Why expect otherwise? The U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, like most U.S. embassies in trouble spots, is a big, ugly installation (an earlier iteration had been bombed) located on a lonely road behind a series of gates. Security was so tight that I had to provide, in advance, my cab driver's name and license number. Diplomats only ventured out in convoys. Patterson, in short, operated from a bubble.

And yet it turns out you can learn a lot in a bubble. On Sept. 23, 2009, Patterson sent a cable in response to an inquiry from an unspecified source in the National Security Council. The debate over AfPak strategy inside the White House was then at its height. The military brass were pushing a full-bore counterinsurgency strategy calling for 40,000 troops; Vice President Joe Biden and other senior officials were arguing for a more modest program of counterterrorism in Afghanistan paired with a much greater focus on Pakistan. It wouldn't work, Patterson said: "It is not/not possible [the double "not" appears to be a peculiar convention of the diplomatic cable] to counter Al Qaeda in Pakistan absent a comprehensive strategy that 1) addresses the interlinked Taliban threat in Afghanistan and Pakistan, 2) brings about stable, civilian government in Afghanistan, and 3) reexamines the broader role of India in the region."

Pakistan's fears of India's ambitions in Afghanistan, "justified or not," Patterson wrote, meant that it would not tolerate any vacuum in Kabul that could be filled by a pro-Indian regime. "General Kayani," she wrote, referring to Pakistan's army chief and effective ruler, "has been utterly frank about Pakistan's position on this. In such a scenario, the Pakistan establishment will dramatically increase support for Taliban groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan." Patterson cautioned that "discussion of deadlines, downsizing of the American military presence or even a denial of the additional troops reportedly to be requested by Gen. McChrystal" could trigger this response.

Patterson also signed a cable from January of that year, when Biden, then vice president-elect, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) came to Islamabad for a heart-to-heart with Kayani. Patterson recounted Kayani's reassurances of support that U.S. counterterrorism efforts; he just needed more money to take on the insurgents. In answer to a blunt question from Biden, Kayani and Pakistani intelligence chief Ahmed Shuja Pasha promised to take on the Pakistani Taliban first, and then the Afghan branch. "[They insisted that] nobody was protecting the bad guys Graham said that he would support development assistance to Pakistan, but needed to know that the aid would produce a change in Pakistani behavior. Kayani replied that Pakistan and the U.S. had a convergence of interests."

This was an important meeting, for it may have helped persuade Biden that the United States could make more headway in Pakistan than in Afghanistan. The cable makes no judgment about Kayani's sincerity, perhaps because diplomats are disinclined to report that the local strongman has pulled the wool over the eyes of two visiting senior statesmen. But at least by September, Patterson knew that Kayani had been telling his visitors what they came to hear. "There is," she wrote in the later cable, "no chance that Pakistan will view enhanced assistance levels in any field as sufficient compensation for abandoning support to these groups, which it sees as an important part of its national security apparatus against India." Patterson suggested that the United States seek to lower tensions between India and Pakistan and use its civilian aid to "extend the writ of the Pakistani state into the FATA" -- the frontier area where the extremists seek sanctuary -- "in such a way that the Taliban can no longer offer effective protection to Al Qaeda from Pakistan's own security and law enforcement agencies in these areas."

Of course, saying that the United States must help Pakistan create legitimate governance in the frontier region and must help Afghanistan do so all over the country is useful advice only if it's possible. And in fact later that fall, Patterson's counterpart in Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry would write a memo of his own arguing that such a strategy almost certainly wouldn't work. He appears to have been absolutely right. Nor have U.S. aid efforts made much headway in FATA so far, though Patterson was careful to warn in the September cable that doing so would "require a multi-year, multi-agency effort." The embassy in Pakistan didn't, and perhaps couldn't, supply the White House with a better answer; rather, the cables may have forced policymakers to think twice about the appealingly modest alternative Biden and others were proposing.

You can imagine Obama reading the Patterson cable, smacking his forehead and saying, "So I can't go small, like Joe wants, but I'm not convinced I can win by going big. What do I do?" In the end, Obama tried to square the circle by limiting the goal of the war in Afghanistan to "disrupting, dismantling and defeating Al Qaeda and its extremist allies" rather than crushing the Taliban; accepting that the central threat was not Afghanistan but Pakistan; but nevertheless ordering in 30,000 more troops and the ambitious civilian effort required to bring "stable civilian government to Afghanistan." Maybe he heard Patterson's message.

The WikiLeaks documents in general show that U.S. diplomats are quite adroit at analyzing problems like this, ones that their government turns out to be unable to resolve. This shouldn't come as shocking news, but I suppose it would to Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, who must have thought that the documents would expose American imbecility, or hegemony, or both. He has, at any rate, probably done a good deal less damage than he had hoped.

Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Terms of Engagement

A Glimmer of Hope in Southern Sudan

For now, all's quiet on the north-south front. But President Omar Hassan al-Bashir may still have a few cards to play before January's all-important referendum.

It is Thanksgiving week, and it behooves those of us who write about the world to find something or other to feel thankful for, or at least hopeful about. That excludes most of my normal subject matter. I am, however, feeling ever so slightly optimistic about events in one of the most desperate places on Earth, south Sudan, where 2 million people died in a 20-year civil war with the north only ended in 2005. It now appears increasingly likely that the long-awaited referendum in which southerners will choose either independence or continued association with the north will in fact take place Jan. 9, as planned -- and even (though this is much less certain) that the government in Khartoum will honor the outcome, which will undoubtedly be a vote for independence. This would be a rare moment of unadulterated joy to the downtrodden and neglected people of the south and offer some hope for the rest of us that seemingly intractable conflicts can have a peaceful and positive end.

Why this uptick in confidence? Because Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir and his henchmen -- though brutal, duplicitous, and cynical -- are not irrational. According to virtually everyone I have spoken to, the regime has concluded that its best chance for survival lies in cutting a deal with the south rather than contesting the referendum. "I'm more optimistic than I was a few weeks ago," a U.S. State Department official, speaking from Sudan, told me. "There's a certain momentum now to the referendum." The central issue, then, is what Khartoum wants out of that deal and whether the government of Southern Sudan and the international community can deliver enough to convince the regime to part with over a third of its territory and virtually all of its oil-production capacity -- a prize which it fought one of the world's most savage civil wars to keep.

Bashir's government is so opaque, so fragmented, and so devoted to eleventh-hour brinkmanship that no one can say for sure what it is it actually wants. U.S. President Barack Obama's administration has been trying very hard to figure out Khartoum's price, and meet it. At present, for example, the two sides share equally in the country's oil wealth -- by far and away the chief source of revenue for each -- but because the south will wind up with almost all the oil, it must agree to share some portion of the proceeds with the north. And yet Scott Gration, the State Department special envoy to Sudan, was mystified during his last visit to find that Sudanese officials seemed almost blithe about this supposedly all-important issue. Did this mean that debt relief, aid, or foreign investment all of a sudden matters more to Khartoum than the oil it has fought so long to keep? Or is Bashir biding his time in favor of some adroit last-minute blackmail?

This month, the White House asked Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to go to Khartoum to convey to senior officials a new offer to remove Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terrorism in exchange for letting the referendum proceed and honoring the outcome. The designation is a major obstacle to foreign investment, and the Sudanese are said to have welcomed the gesture. But a U.N. official who met some of the same figures right after Kerry said that they scoffed at the idea that Obama could deliver on removing the north from the state sponsors of terrorism list, because this would require, as they knew, a vote of Congress.

Money is only one level of this dizzyingly complicated game -- which is just the type Khartoum likes to play. The Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA), which both north and south signed in 2005 and which mandates the referendum, requires agreement on borders, security, terms of citizenship, and a range of other issues -- virtually none of which have been settled thus far. Neither side has shown much interest in reaching across the table on any of these issues. Khartoum is seeking reassurances that a new government in the south won't jeopardize its security by harboring insurgents from Darfur or elsewhere; however, the Southern People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), the ruling party in Southern Sudan, is reluctant to surrender that leverage, says the State Department official.

The one issue neither can postpone much further is the fate of Abyei, a region that straddles the border and has oil, water, and grazing land for nomadic tribes. The Bashir government has threatened to go to war if the referendum occurs without settling the status of Abyei. The CPA mandated a separate referendum for the region, but Khartoum has been unwilling to let the vote go forward; there is talk of an agreement whereby the south would annex Abyei by decree and pay off the north with oil revenues. But no one knows whether this is something Khartoum will accept. Bashir and Salva Kiir, president of the government of Southern Sudan, met on Wednesday, Nov. 24, in Addis Ababa to discuss the problem, but agreed only that it must be resolved. The two are scheduled to meet again on Saturday in Khartoum.

Or maybe it's all a charade. While hundreds of thousands of voters have registered in the south, only 9,000 of the half-million or more southerners living in the north have done so. Leaders of the SPLM fear that Khartoum is preventing voters from registering and plans to blame the south. "They'll say, 'We're not going to accept the results of the referendum because people were prevented from registering,'" says Ezekiel Gatkuoth, representative of Southern Sudan in the United States.

Bashir knows that the south would respond with a unilateral declaration of statehood and would be fully prepared to fight to preserve its sovereignty. This month, he moved army units close to the border, perhaps hoping to provoke the south into striking first. But the south has recently bulked up its military with tanks and anti-aircraft capacity, making the military option for Bashir much more costly. Maybe that, too, is a bluff. No one can be sure.

In the end, Bashir is making a straightforward calculation: What do I get for playing ball; what do I lose for breaking up the game? The great imponderable for him is the role of the international community. The systematic atrocities which he committed in Darfur starting in 2003 met with terrible denunciations but modest punishments; with virtually the entire region's population still cowering in refugee camps, Bashir has tested the resolve of the international community, and come out a winner. (And with the world preoccupied with the north-south drama, he has once again stepped up the clandestine bombardment of Darfur.) The International Criminal Court has indicted him on genocide charges, but in recent months both U.S. and U.N. officials have said little about the subject, apparently fearful of risking Bashir's cooperation on the referendum. What will happen if in any case he walks away from the referendum? Perhaps the African Union and the Organization of the Islamic Conference will back him up, as they have in the past.

The international community has begun mobilizing, albeit in its own rather diffident way. Thabo Mbeki, the former president of South Africa and now head of what is known as the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel, has pressed the two sides with growing urgency to settle the toughest issues, especially Abyei; he will be presiding over the meetings in Khartoum this weekend. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has appointed a Panel on the Referenda, led by Benjamin Mkapa, the former president of Tanzania, which could play a crucial role in giving legitimacy to the Jan. 9 vote. Both the United States and Britain are signaling their strong, if still implicit, support for a new southern state. On Nov. 18, Britain, which is currently president of the U.N. Security Council, convened a ministerial-level meeting on Sudan and gave the floor to Pagan Amum, Southern Sudan's chief negotiator. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke, publicly announcing the offer to remove Sudan from the terrorism list.

Ultimately, the Southern Sudanese look to Washington for protection and support. I asked Gatkuoth how he felt about Gration, who has been harshly criticized in the south -- and among Sudan activists abroad -- for showing Khartoum too much deference and taking its flimsy pledges at face value. "Obama has taken control of the process," said Gatkuoth diplomatically. "I'm so excited because the whole administration is on board now." The United States cannot, in fact, settle the north-south problem on its own; Bashir must feel pressure from his Arab and African neighbors and allies, as well as from the West.

But as is also so often true, both parties are looking to Washington to underwrite an agreement they are reluctant to make. Perhaps Obama will never get much credit for acting in such a way as to prevent a calamity. But if Southern Sudan achieves statehood peacefully after Jan. 9, I would say that's something to be very thankful for.