In both style and substance, Sherry Rehman was born to be a Washington diplomat and hostess. She has a designer wardrobe, a chestnut coif and camera-ready makeup. She also has a BA from Smith, a CV full of democratic credentials and the articulate self-confidence of her country’s Westernized elite.
But Rehman’s arrival as the new ambassador from Pakistan, a nuclear-armed, terrorist-plagued nation of 180 million, has come at a time of unprecedented anti-American clamor among the Pakistani public, which has been increasingly drawn to conservative Islamic values and infuriated by U.S. drone attacks and other perceived aggressions.
She has also landed in Washington at a time of deepening bilateral mistrust, marked by the covert U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the shooting of two Pakistanis by a CIA contractor and, most recently, the November attack by U.S. forces in Afghanistan that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. Ongoing tension between these two formal allies in the war on terrorism has plunged U.S.-Pakistan relations to their lowest point since the end of the Cold War.
Moreover, the civilian administration that appointed Rehman is deeply unpopular, besieged by the courts and the media, and under constant pressure from Pakistan’s powerful military establishment. The crisis has led to repeated rumors, so far unrealized, that the elected government is about to fall.
Rehman, 51, seems undaunted. She learned the art of politics at the side of the late Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan’s former prime minister, a liberal icon and a steel magnolia par excellence. Since taking up her post two weeks ago, the new envoy has handled her challenging portfolio with similar, purposeful charm.
“You’ll have to airbrush out the circles under my eyes. I was up all night with a Pentagon crisis,” Rehman remarked cheerfully to a photographer last week, posing for portraits in Pakistan’s embassy, a hushed and impersonal marble fortress off Connecticut Avenue in Northwest Washington.
The crisis in question had erupted after a stinging new comment on Pakistan’s “double dealing” by Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, which Rehman spent hours attempting to spin lest it provoke an apoplectic reaction from her country’s easily offended generals.
Making her entry equally difficult are the tumultuous, intrigue-filled circumstances that led to the forced resignation of her predecessor, Husain Haqqani, in late November. That incident, a reflection of the constant plots, rumors and institutional power struggles that consume Pakistani politics, became a full-blown scandal known as “Memogate.”
Haqqani, a former journalist and academic long critical of Pakistan’s military, was ordered home and accused of treason after he was said to have written a memo asking U.S. officials for help in preventing a coup d’etat. Haqqani denied the charges, but he spent most of December and January hiding inside the prime minister’s house, saying he feared for his safety. By last week, the furor had eased and Haqqani, given back his right to travel, was reportedly heading back to the United States as a private citizen.
In an interview last week, Rehman was careful not to criticize Haqqani, a one-man political operator who was constantly tweeting, meeting and spinning in several directions at once. But she signaled that she intends to do things differently, saying, “I am not a solo flier. I like to consult and to act institutionally.”
Asked what Pakistan’s army brass thought of her appointment, she answered euphemistically. “The message I am getting is that everyone is able to work with me,” she said. “I come from a long tradition that is anti-establishment, but I am very clear that here, I speak for one government.”
After months of turmoil, Rehman’s appointment has been viewed as a breath of fresh air in Islamabad and Washington. William Milam, a former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, described her as “tough and courageous,” and said she represents “the traditional values of Jinnah’s Pakistan, tolerance and moderation.” Mohammed Ali Jinnah was the founder of Pakistan in the 1940s, and Rehman chairs a foundation dedicated to preserving his vision of Muslim democracy.
Accolades have also poured in from Pakistan’s Internet-savvy diaspora. “GREAT CHOICE,” Arif Khan, a Pakistani American, posted in one of dozens of complimentary online responses to a recent news story about Rehman. “She is a liberal and an educated person, not stuck to religion like glue. She has a moderate interpretation of Islam, which needs to be presented to the modern world of six billion non-Muslims. Good luck, Sherry, and welcome to the USA.”
Rehman has few illusions that her liberal credentials, including 20 years as a prominent journalist, will help thaw the deep freeze between Washington and Islamabad. A series of disputes and incidents, capped by the fatal U.S. air assault on two Pakistani border posts in November, have left their so-called strategic partnership in a state of exhaustion. After years of pledges to cooperate in fighting Islamic extremism and violence, bolstered by millions in U.S. aid, both military establishments seem to have abandoned all pretense of trust.
“We are in a process of strategic reset,” Rehman said, speaking from an obviously vetted script. “I feel strongly that Pakistan and the United States can have a rational, constructive, predictable and transparent relationship, but we have not had that in a sustained way for too long. We need to lower expectations and do business in a grounded way. We need a relationship that is invested with less emotion.”
Yet even such a pragmatic, scaled-down agenda will be difficult to pursue given the continuing political crisis in Pakistan, where the civilian government that appointed Rehman is bogged down in power struggles with an array of institutional and personal adversaries. In a way, the ambassador’s toughest diplomatic balancing act will be internal.
President Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto’s widower, is a weak and unpopular leader whose tenure has been clouded by corruption charges and recurrent rumors of an army takeover or a judicial “soft coup.” Last week, the Supreme Court threatened to impeach Prime Minister Yusuf Gilani for not pursuing corruption cases against Zardari that have long been stalled in Swiss courts.
Rehman, a longtime legislator from the ruling Pakistan People’s Party, once served the fledgling Zardari-Gilani administration as information minister. But in 2009, she abruptly quit in frustration over the government’s attempt to place restrictions on press freedom, remaining a member of Parliament and foundation official.
So why did she agree to this new appointment? Was it in part because Washington offered her haven from a country where outspoken liberals are increasingly under threat of violent attack? Just a year ago, Rehman was confined to her family mansion in Karachi, under 24-hour police guard, after receiving death threats from radical Islamists. At this moment she is facing charges of blasphemy against Islam, a capital crime in Pakistan, which were filed by Islamist groups in connection with her public support for reforming the nation’s draconian blasphemy laws.
“I have never run away from Pakistan, and I will be back as soon as I can,” Rehman asserted sharply. “I never left when the mullahs were at the door. Washington is lovely, but this is a hardship post for me.” Noting that her husband and college-aged daughter have stayed behind at home, she insisted that she had accepted the post only because the government “asked me to step up to the plate at a difficult and challenging time for Pakistan. I had very little option,” she said. “I have never said no to an opportunity to serve my country.”
Although Rehman’s new role in Washington requires her to be cagily circumspect on issues of military and foreign policy, it is allowing her some breathing space on domestic social issues she has long championed, including the rights of women and religious minorities. Last week, she chose to hold her first embassy dinner in honor of Paul Bhatti, a visiting Christian leader whose brother, a former Pakistani cabinet minister for religious minority affairs, was assassinated last year. The dinner was low-key, with no speeches, but it made her point.
“We may be under siege, but we will not be silent,” said Rehman, who dresses in traditional Pakistani tunic-and-trouser ensembles but does not wear a Muslim head scarf. “We must empower minorities where we can, and protect all vulnerable groups against the extremist tide.”
For a moment, Rehman sounded a lot like her mentor, Bhutto. The longtime People’s Party leader was assassinated in 2007 while greeting a crowd of supporters; she had hoped to run for Parliament after years in exile. Rehman, one of her closest aides, was inside Bhutto’s vehicle when the former premier collapsed, fatally wounded. The unsolved attack robbed the nation of its most charismatic leader and perhaps its best hope for democracy after a decade of military rule.
Asked if she wished she could be here representing a Bhutto administration, Rehman shook her head. “I see myself as her ambassador, too,” she said. “It has always been her. I can never end a speech without making a tribute to her.” On the wall of Rehman’s new embassy office, in a prominent spot usually hung with portraits of current Pakistani officials, smiles the instantly recognizable face of Benazir Bhutto.