Arise, Sir Richard of Foggy Bottom
Richard Boucher is better known in Pakistan than President Bush. It is said that whenever you peek over your shoulder in Islamabad, you find a Freud look-alike walking two steps behind you. A closer look reveals that it is not the sage of 19 Bergasse, Vienna, but Uncle Sam’s inspector-general to the territories of South and Central Asia.
Inspector General I choose as Sir Richard’s super secret title because he is always out there inspecting. What exactly he is sent to inspect has never been clear. Some say “everything”, others say “nothing”. Last time, there was a sneeze epidemic in Islamabad — thanks to those blasted Japanese maples — who do you think was the first foreign visitor who arrived to check things out but Richard.
Although he travelled incognito, some hawk-eyed know-alls of the capital did not fail to recognise him despite the jungle green bio-hazard suit he was wearing. He did not arrive by a normal flight; he was parachuted over Kahuta, which also afforded him the opportunity to steal a look at Dr AQ Khan’s old stomping ground. Richard landed like a feather settling on a leaf, performed yoga exercises the perfidious Indians had taught him, before vanishing from sight, thanks to his folded superman wings. In the six hours he spent sniffing the air through his bio-hazard-protected nose, he was able to flash a report to Foggy Bottom. It is another matter that his for-your-eyes-only message remained confined to its electronic sheath until the next morning, by which time it had become obsolete.
What places Richard in a company of one among foreign emissaries is that while others rush to Pakistan after yet another Al Qaeda intercept or a report that Osama bin Laden was sighted buying second-hand South Korean joggers in the Aabpara Market — within shooting distance of the Red Mosque, mind you — he has already been there and gone. I mean the man simply has no competition. In this he is like the Punjab Police, which is so good that it knows well before the commissioning of a crime where that crime is going to be commissioned.
Despite the regent-like status Richard enjoys in Pakistan, he remains a modest guy. Sometimes I really feel bad for him because in Pakistan he is beginning to be held responsible for half the things that go wrong. It can be from late monsoons, which were followed by excessive rains, the colour of Sheikh Rashid Ahmed “Bellie’s” spray-painted hair, Shaukat “Shortcut” Aziz’s dematerialisation, the rising price of onions, power breakdowns, the yo-yo behaviour of the Stock Exchange, State Bank governess Shamshad Akhtar’s rupee-printing machines, and Pakistani cricketers’ disastrous performance in the Asia Cup, not to forget Gen Musharraf’s golf handicap.
Richard has a lot of years left in the service of his country. What will he do when he retires? Will he write the New Richard’s Almanac or will he be snapped up by one of those companies no one is ever sure as to what they do. But all that lies in the future.
Talking of the present, so rarely is Richard present in his Foggy Bottom hideout that the Department has had to employ a special handyman to clear the cobwebs in his room. I heard that the last time he returned to Washington, groggy with jetlag and not having slept four nights running, he forgot what floor his room was on. He was seen tottering around on the fifth floor, which triggered a security alert. I felt great sympathy for this remarkable public servant who bears not one but twenty crosses, the one called Pakistan being the heaviest.
I have nothing against Richard but what gets my goat is the somnambulistic press office that snores under his benevolent charge. The other day I even wrote Richard a letter, which I am quite sure is not going to reach him for the simple reason that ever since those anthrax mailings, it can take up to three months for a letter mailed from Washington to reach a congressional address, thanks to the many sniffing machines and dogs it has to be go through before being cleared for delivery. Not having mailed a letter to anyone in the State Department before, I am not sure if the one I sent to Richard (with the address written in green in my neatest Italic script) will ever reach him. And even if it reaches him, he would be too jetlagged and sleep-deprived — the Tora Bora-Washington non-stop flight being long — to read.
Here is what gets my goat. There are fifteen to twenty correspondents who live in the Washington area, slaving away at starvation wages for Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi newspapers and agencies. Then there is the romping Pakistani Urdu press based in New York, and its equally restive, equally emotional Indian counterpart. All of us at some point in the week want to know if the State Department has anything to say about, for example, the disappearance of bananas from South Waziristan or the report that Osama bin Laden has turned his back on worldwide jihad and taken to grazing camels in his native Yemen. There is just one phone number that we call (to prove that I am not making it up, the number is (202)-647-8605. The one who picks up that phone is supposed to answer our queries. That at least is the theory.
In practice, as often happens in life, it ain’t necessarily so. That number is on voicemail, nine times out of ten. “This is Cindy (or Jennifer or Jeanette or Josh). I am not at my desk right now, but if you leave a name and a number and your question, I will call you back as soon as I can.” But you need not get your hopes up because “call you back as soon…” means (to quote Poe’s Raven) ‘Nevermore.’ Even if Jane, Joan, Jennifer or Josh does pick up the phone, she or he never has the answer. “We’ll call you back”, which also means, nine times out of ten, what the Raven croaked.
Most of us work for morning newspapers. In Pakistan’s case we have a time disadvantage of 10 hours (it was nine hours till some smartie pants in Islamabad raised it by an hour this summer), which means we have got to know what we have got to know, not today but yesterday. Time, in our case, is really of the essence.
But what happens? Nothing. Even a teething baby knows that “Don’t call us, we’ll call you” means, “We won’t call you”. My Pakistani friends, I trust, would be pleased to know that it is not only they who do not return calls, or pick up their phones, it is not much different out here. The only thing that needs to be added is that the American media does not get treated that way. In fact, it is really the American media the State Department really caters to. As for the rest of us, it doesn’t really give a damn.
If somebody at the Foreign Office in the old Hotel Scheherzad, Islamabad, is reading this, next time an American correspondent calls, don’t please send a staff car for him and on arrival take him to the foreign minister’s office and offer him tea with samosas. At the State Department, even if you were dying of thirst, nobody will give you a glass of water.
As for Richard Boucher, what can you say to a man who is permanently jetlagged and who hasn’t had a good night’s sleep for the last four years!
Khalid Hasan is Daily Times’ US-based correspondent