Pakistan's President, Asif Ali Zardari, would have expected that his interactions with American leaders in New York City this week could bring trouble at home. After all, relations between the two countries are as tense as they've ever been, erupting into an exchange of fire between U.S. and Pakistani forces along the Afghan border on Thursday. But the meeting that appears to have gotten the Pakistani leader into more trouble than any other was a brief encounter with Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
Zardari met Palin on Wednesday on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, where Zardari was making his debut on the world stage and Palin was meeting with visiting heads of state in the hopes of improving her much-derided foreign policy credentials. The resulting exchange turned Palin into a household name in Pakistan but saw Zardari pilloried at home as a source of national embarrassment, as he was accused of sexism and impropriety. (See photos of Sarah Palin here.)
In footage now being endlessly replayed on local cable channels and on YouTube, Palin is seen rising to introduce herself as Zardari, dressed in one of his signature flashy tailored suits, enters. As custom demands, the two grip each other's hands and shake them animatedly before the cameras. But it is the remarks that follow that got Zardari into hot water back home.
Meetings between Pakistani and American leaders are traditionally staid and predictable, although some Pakistanis are fond of recalling an apocryphal 1963 exchange between John F. Kennedy and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto father of slain Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, to whom Zardari was married. Impressed by the then Foreign Minister, who would become Prime Minister before being deposed by a U.S.-backed military dictator in 1977 and later executed, Kennedy is alleged to have said, "If you were an American, you would be in my Cabinet." Bhutto is alleged to have answered, "Be careful, Mr. President. If I were an American, you would be in my Cabinet."
What Zardari said after shaking Palin's hand will likely prove a great deal less memorable. "You are more gorgeous than you are on [television]," he told Palin after she declared that she was honored to meet him. "Now I know why the whole of America is crazy about you," Zardari added, flashing his trademark teeth-baring smile.
At that point, the two were urged to shake hands again, presumably for the benefit of the cameras. "I'm supposed to pose again," Palin said quietly. Pointing toward the aide that prompted them, Zardari said, "If he's insisting, I might hug."
Pakistani newspapers ran prominent accounts of the "embarrassing" incident, while news anchors smirked after airing the footage. On Geo TV, a popular Urdu-language network, Zardari's words were delicately termed a "light and open exchange of remarks" before the short clip ran with blow-by-blow commentary. A subsequent version ran with an Urdu ballad playing in the background.
It being Pakistan, attention inevitably turned to how the event was being covered in neighboring India. Times Now television introduced the clip with the words "Pakistani President Asif Zardari seems to be a big fan of Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, but his first meeting with her has critics saying that he was completely a bit out of line." Strap lines across the top of the screen blared "Pak President Out of Line with Palin," "Zardari Shocks with Sexist Remark" and "Zardari Ignores Diplomatic Propriety."
The criticism was echoed by leading Pakistani feminists. "I feel it's absolutely shameful and a disgrace," says Tahira Abdullah, a prominent women's rights activist. "It is against diplomatic protocol. And he is supposed to be mourning the loss of his illustrious and so-called beloved wife. Instead, he's flirting with [Palin] in public. He should apologize to her and to Pakistanis."
"President Zardari's charm offensive on Ms. Palin was, well, offensive," wrote political analyst Mosharraf Zaidi in an op-ed for The News. "What excuse does the husband of a global feminist icon have for his faux pas?" he asked in a reference to the late Benazir Bhutto's status as the Muslim world's first female Prime Minister.
While many reactions have been hostile, some Pakistanis have laughed off the exchange as nothing more than a source of inconsequential merriment. But the country's religious conservatives are unlikely to be so forgiving. A previous inappropriate encounter between a leading Pakistani male politician and an American female politician was seized on by political opponents in Parliament: Condoleezza Rice biographer Marcus Mabry described in pitiless detail an abortive charm offensive by former Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz on the U.S. Secretary of State, after Aziz had allegedly told diplomats that "he could conquer any woman in two minutes."
Mabry's account of the Rice-Aziz encounter spawned a minor media storm in Pakistan, but like it, the furor over the Zardari-Palin meeting will likely soon be forgotten. With an economy in free fall and militancy on the rise, Pakistanis have little time to concern themselves for too long over how their President comports himself.