WASHINGTON — The White House has for now overruled State Department officials who favoured a show of remorse to help salvage relations after a deadly NATO airstrike killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, The New York Times reported Thursday.
Citing administration officials, the newspaper said the United States ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, told a group of White House officials that a formal video statement from President Obama was needed to help prevent the rapidly deteriorating relations between Islamabad and Washington from cratering. The ambassador, speaking by video-conference from Islamabad, said that anger in Pakistan had reached a fever pitch, and that the United States needed to move to defuse it as quickly as possible, the officials recounted.
But Defence Department officials balked, the Times said. While they did not deny some American culpability in the episode, they said expressions of remorse offered by senior department officials and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton were enough, at least until the completion of a United States military investigation establishing what went wrong.
Some administration aides also worried that if Obama were to overrule the military and apologize to Pakistan, such a step could become fodder for his Republican opponents in the presidential campaign.
On Wednesday, White House officials said Obama was unlikely to say anything further on the matter in the coming days.
“The U.S. government has offered its deepest condolences for the loss of life, from the White House and from Secretary Clinton and Secretary Panetta,” said Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council, referring to Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, “and we are conducting an investigation into the incident. We cannot offer additional comment on the circumstances of the incident until we have the results.”
With everything at stake in the relationship with Pakistan, which the United States sees as vital as it plans to exit from Afghanistan, some former Obama administration officials were cited as saying the president should make public remarks on the border episode, including a formal apology.
“Without some effective measures of defusing this issue, Pakistan will cooperate less rather than more with us, and we won’t be able to achieve our goals in Afghanistan,” said Vali Nasr, a former State Department official who specialized in Pakistan.But David Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official and the author of “Running the World: The Inside Story of the National Security Council and the Architects of American Power,” said Pakistani officials need to understand that in the next year, the Obama administration will be less willing to make nice.
“I do think that it’s important for them to recognize that political dynamics in the United States will lead to a hardening of U.S. positions, and the president will have less and less flexibility to accept the kind of behaviour that he has in the past,” Rothkopf was quoted as saying. “The prognosis for U.S.-Pakistani relations is bleak.”