By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, May 6, 2009
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has a problem. His government is near collapse, hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing the Taliban in northwest Pakistan, and militants are within 60 miles of the capital, Islamabad.
So yesterday, Zardari did what any sensible world leader would do in a time of crisis: He went to see Wolf Blitzer.
"My government is not going to fall," Zardari assured Blitzer as he sat with the cable news host in the Situation Room -- not the one in the White House, but the one in CNN's Washington bureau near Union Station.
Blitzer directed Zardari to watch a presentation of the Taliban's gains on CNN's "magic map" plasma screen.
"Exaggerated," Zardari said. "We've been giving them a fight."
"Do you need American help?" Blitzer offered.
"I need drones," Zardari said.
Luckily, Blitzer had some drone footage. "If you turn around over there, you can see some pictures," Blitzer said. Zardari obliged. Next, Blitzer directed him to look at a video of a CNN "iReport" from a Pakistani college student in Florida. "Turn around and you can see him," Blitzer ordered. Zardari, looking bewildered by Blitzer's arsenal of plasma screens, obeyed.
"Are you going to send your troops in," Blitzer demanded, "and clean out that area from the Taliban and al-Qaeda?"
"Most definitely," Zardari promised.
Blitzer was satisfied. "Mr. President," he said, "good luck."
Winning the coveted support of Blitzer will no doubt take a place of honor in Zardari's scrapbook from his trip to Washington this week. Now, if he can only get similar support during today's meeting with President Obama. The Obama administration has enough on its hands without worrying about whether the Taliban and al-Qaeda will be able to topple the government in nuclear-armed Pakistan. But crises in that region wait for no man -- and now one has come, literally, to Obama's doorstep.
Zardari will join his Afghan counterpart, Hamid Karzai, in a meeting with Obama today, following Israeli President Shimon Peres's meeting with Obama yesterday. The visits by the three leaders turned Capitol Hill into a tangle of photo ops yesterday. Zardari, fresh from his audience with Blitzer, sat down with the House Foreign Affairs Committee. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi received Peres three hours before her meeting with Karzai, who had given a lunchtime address to the Brookings Institution. And all three were bound to run into busloads of pro-Israel activists participating in a lobbying day as part of the annual gathering of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Administration officials, in turn, went into global-crisis mode. Vice President Biden spoke to AIPAC in the morning, sat down with Peres in the afternoon, then invited in experts to talk with him about Pakistan over dinner at the Naval Observatory. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was in Saudi Arabia trying to get that country's help for Pakistan to fight off the insurgents. Richard Holbrooke, Obama's troubleshooter for Afghanistan and Pakistan, spoke to the House Foreign Affairs Committee about the crisis.
Holbrooke spoke of the "air of panic" in Pakistan after the fall of the Swat Valley to the Taliban. "I like to point out to my New York friends that it's the same distance from [Islamabad] as East Hampton is from New York, and it bears the same psychological relationship to the people of Islamabad as a vacation spot, although real estate prices were not quite as high."
"And we won't talk about the parties," said Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman (D-Calif.).
Complicating things, as always, were lawmakers, who sought to put conditions on aid to Zardari's government. Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said he wanted new requirements put on Pakistan in exchange for more U.S. support. "I don't believe that the Pakistan government and the Afghan government are sufficiently focused and organized and unified," he complained, perhaps underestimating the difficulty of being focused, organized and unified when your country has fallen into violence and anarchy.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) joined in the demands. "We've got to see a seriousness of purpose by the Pakistani government," he said.
At the daily White House briefing, questions about the region displaced the usual fare about the economy and swine flu.
"What is the president going to do to reassure Zardari? . . . Why should we keep throwing more money at it? . . . What does the president want President Zardari to do that he's not already doing?"
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs replied with vague references to "deep concern" and "renewed commitments."
But such expressions seemed unlikely to calm the worries on Capitol Hill. At the House Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Berman told Holbrooke that "it appears to many of us that Pakistan is at a tipping point." Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) put it this way: "Let me be blunt. Pakistan's pants are on fire."
Holbrooke did not quarrel about the state of Pakistan's trousers, calling the country "a state under extreme test" but not yet a failed state. "Our goal must be to support unambiguously and help stabilize a democratic Pakistan headed by its elected president, Asif Ali Zardari," Holbrooke said.
Fortunately for Zardari, Wolf Blitzer is on the case.