NEW YORK – U.S. military incursions into Pakistan that have stoked anti-American sentiments top the agenda for President George W. Bush's talks with the newly elected president of the Muslim nation, which is reeling from a deadly truck bomb that devastated a Marriott Hotel in Islamabad.
Publicly, Bush and Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, who were to meet Tuesday on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, will exhibit a show of solidarity against extremists. Privately, the two leaders will be trying to craft a delicate strategy to make progress in fighting militants while keeping U.S.-Pakistan relations on an even keel until Bush leaves office in four months.
Pakistan is under growing pressure from the United States to act against Al Qaeda and Taliban insurgents along its border with Afghanistan, a staging ground for attacks against coalition troops in Afghanistan and bombings in Pakistan. Pakistan accuses the U.S. of violating its sovereignty. But with little political clout, it's unclear whether Zardari can muster the domestic support he needs, especially from the Pakistani military, to step up the fight against terrorists inside his own nation.
Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said the weekend hotel bombing, which killed 53 people and wounded hundreds, was an attempt to "destabilize democracy" in Pakistan and destroy its already fragile economy.
In his meeting, Bush was expected to seek greater cooperation from Zardari, reiterating the White House position that the Marriott bombing is evidence that Pakistanis themselves are under siege from extremists living within their borders. Zardari is expected to tell Bush that the cross-border attacks by the U.S. are actually weakening his political standing among Pakistanis who believe that U.S. meddling in the region is fueling the terrorist attacks.
"It's a tough spot for both countries," said Hilton Root, a professor of public policy at George Mason University who has written extensively on Pakistan. "People are angry with the U.S. It is the belief on the street in Pakistan that we are stirring things up, creating animosity and fueling the fire."
"The message from the bombing is very, very clear: Nothing is safe in Pakistan," said Root, who claims U.S. policy in Pakistan has failed. "The government is not able to deliver. I think most Pakistanis are scared. I think they think the future of their country is on the line."
Looking beyond Bush, Zardari is meeting with Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin — a sitdown on Wednesday that will help Palin pad her thin foreign policy credentials and give Zardari a photo opportunity with a media magnet on the U.S. presidential campaign trail.
After Tuesday's meeting with Zardari, Bush will give his final address to the assembly, and talk at least in general terms about the U.S. financial crisis. He is to express his views about terrorism, push his freedom agenda and talk about how he thinks multinational groups like the United Nations need to be accountable and more focused on results.
"I personally would like to see and hear much greater U.S. presidential emphasis on diplomacy and on the potential use of the mediating and pacifying roles of the United Nations, as distinct from military force ... in working out practical solutions with Iran, for example," said Alan Henrikson, a professor and director of diplomatic studies at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. "Much greater involvement of the U.N. General Assembly in diplomacy, across the board, should be embraced by the United States, including President Bush. It would be a nice gesture."