It is possible my view of diplomacy has declined since Sept. 11, 2001. It is hard to say: my view of what the modern diplomat does, and how he goes about doing it, was pretty low before. Perhaps I am naive. Perhaps I am wrong to believe that in an earlier age, an ambassador went about his business more discreetly, without photo-ops, and could thus afford to be more honest and frank. No room, today, for this long historical aside, but it is interesting to read such practitioner-authorities as the late Sir Harold Nicholson on the history of diplomacy, and the surroundings for some of the world’s most famous treaties – in the ages before “public diplomacy.”
Do moral principles apply to diplomatic acts? I say yes. It is a moral principle that one should not lie. And if one cannot speak without lying, silence would be indicated. One’s enemies may read the worst into one’s silence, but they read the worst into one’s words. Practically, persistent lying makes one ridiculous, and thus undermines the hope that anyone will believe you when you have to tell the truth. I think the Bush administration, with the best initial intentions, fell head-long into this—but again, I have no room today for a long essay.
Worse yet, is to build a lie into a lie, or into a whole structure of lies. The “roadmap to peace” between Israel and the Palestinians is an example. It has become such a joke that I notice even the New York Times can’t help laughing. Their excellent columnist, David Brooks, compared it yesterday to a wedding without a bride and groom. (Neither the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, nor the PLO leader, Mahmoud Abbas, could sign an agreement that would have any effect: each is cornered within his own divided polity, or pseudo-polity.) Yet, as Brooks argues, Condoleezza Rice is throwing the most elaborate wedding reception possible, to bring together all the guests.
There is a purpose to this gathering, but it has not been honestly stated. That purpose is, in Mr. Brooks’s telling phrase, to assemble a “coalition of the losers” to resist Iran’s bid for regional hegemony—Israel, the PLO, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, versus Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas.
But I’d hold one of the reasons this is a coalition of losers is that, collectively, they cannot face realities. Not even Israel seems prepared to face any today, at least publicly. And secret alliances invariably fall apart. (Another long essay.)
I was a fan of the late Augusto Pinochet, incidentally. Which is not to say I actually liked him. He performed a coup against a newly elected government (that of the radical party led by Salvador Allende, in a three-way split). This was not good, in principle. Yet in practice, he saved Chile from the fate of civil war or totalitarian rule. Which is why, today, the country is an only-partly-dysfunctional democracy, and not a Cuba or a Venezuela. There are times in history when “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do,” and that was one of those unpleasant times. (Books have been written on this.)
But how could an argument over Pinochet possibly be relevant to current problems in the greater Middle East?
Because Pakistan’s president, Pervez Musharraf, declared a national emergency in Pakistan on the weekend, and seized emergency powers, hinting to the point of stating that the country’s scheduled January elections would not be happening. “Out-foxed” everybody, according to the short-hand of the media; though I think we can leave to history the question of what kind of fox Musharraf will have been. He seems to have decided, probably correctly, that he has a better chance to hold the fort than the somewhat narcissistic but currently very popular Benazir Bhutto. Certainly he cannot expect to be popular, now or ever; but there are times when popularity doesn’t matter. I gather that even at the time of his greatest successes, Gen. Pinochet was, in Chile, a minority taste.
President Musharraf has been condemned throughout the West, and in unambiguous terms by the U.S. state department. Editorials in the world’s great newspapers have thundered against him. In Pakistan itself, the opposition media are, at the moment, mute, thanks to soldierly occupation. Yet there is no question – from my undertanding – that Musharraf is sincerely trying to save his country. The alternatives to Musharraf being collapse into anarchy and civil war followed by violent Islamist takeover and ultimately invasion by India.
It could be argued that my analysis is wrong, and that Pakistan was only having a few teething problems on the road to a glittering democratic future. But I don’t think that is a plausible view, and I don’t think we should be investing any diplomatic effort in pretending that things are otherwise than they are.