07.09.11

New Ambassador Takes on Egypt

Ambassador Anne Patterson was known for her candor in Pakistan—and for not protecting Benazir Bhutto. As she transfers to Egypt, she talks to Tara McKelvey about the focal point of the Arab Spring.

Wearing pale lipstick and a beige manicure, with a floral-print scarf tied loosely around her neck, the five-foot-one-and-a-half Anne Patterson hardly looks imposing. Yet as ambassador to Pakistan, she faced down generals in a country that has, as she has described it, “a raging domestic insurgency.” Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Thursday he believes Pakistani officials had “sanctioned” the killing of a journalist who’d written about the military, and Patterson also expressed outrage. “We’ve got to investigate,” she told me. That kind of toughness will come in handy on her next assignment: Egypt.

“She’s going from the frying pan into the fire,” says Nancy Soderberg, a former senior diplomat at the United Nations. Patterson, who leaves for her new assignment this month, acknowledges that expectations are extraordinarily high for Egypt, both here in Washington and abroad; if things go well, she will witness the transformation of a struggling nation into a democracy, fulfilling the dream of the Arab Spring. If things go badly, she will at least be on familiar ground.

Eight months after she left Islamabad, and with an important new assignment, people are attempting to evaluate her tenure in Pakistan. And while she stood up to generals during her three years as ambassador, it remains unclear how much she is willing to stand up for democratic transformation; the question is especially important as she heads for Cairo, the center of a democracy movement that President Barack Obama and White House officials have been reluctant to intervene in.

Like most diplomats, Patterson sometimes finds herself on the right side of history and sometimes on the wrong side. One misstep occurred in October 2007. Terrorists attacked a motorcade with prime minister candidate Benazir Bhutto, killing more than 130 people, and several days later Patterson visited Bhutto at her house in Karachi. Bhutto asked for help in setting up personal security, and Patterson said no, explaining that Americans sometimes provide security for foreign leaders, but not during a political campaign. Nine weeks later, Bhutto was assassinated. “The security provided for Bhutto was abysmal and possibly criminally negligent, and she was looking for help,” says Mark Quarterman, who headed up a United Nations team that investigated her death. “She did not receive it, and she was killed, and it makes it hard to say, ‘We couldn’t do it,’ but it would have been very difficult.”

In a cable, Patterson described the “abandonment of all pretense that the U.S. should not intervene in Pakistani internal affairs.”

When I asked Patterson about her decision, she fiddled with purple-framed glasses on a desk in her temporary office, located in a back room on the third floor of the State Department, and said that she had no regrets. Many people say the decision not to help Bhutto was a mistake and moreover that Patterson’s pronouncements that Americans should steer clear of the internal politics of another nation are disingenuous. In a March 2009 cable, Patterson described a Pakistan Muslim League leader who’d tried to enlist her help in obtaining a senate position and said that this marked the “abandonment of all pretense that the U.S. should not intervene in Pakistani internal affairs.” When I read the passage aloud, Patterson laughed—a bit too loudly. Then she pushed herself back from her desk, folding her arms across her chest, and said she did not want to say anything more about the cables.

Foreign-policy experts say that only principled people, or nations, can be hypocritical, since they have values to betray, and she is a consummate U.S. diplomat. She possesses the kind of self-assuredness that comes with representing a superpower, which may be a blessing in a profession in which so many bad things happen, and the U.S. is blamed unfairly. Yet sometimes self-doubt is useful, since it allows you to recognize errors; as she acknowledges, Bhutto’s death was a terrible loss.

Pakistan, a nuclear-armed ally that often acts as an enemy, has been one of the biggest challenges for U.S. foreign policy, and CIA officers have played an important role in helping to tamp down the domestic insurgency. “Our intelligence programs in Pakistan have been a runaway success,” Patterson said at a conference hosted by Center for a New American Security in Washington last month. These programs have been enormously unpopular in Pakistan, though, and have caused some people to turn against the United States. She and other State Department officials have been under assault; in April 2010, for instance, machine-gun-toting militants, armed with rocket launchers, attacked the consulate in Peshawar and killed at least two guards.

Patterson had previously served as ambassador in drug-war-scarred El Salvador in the 1990s and in Colombia in the 2000s, and these experiences helped her navigate a diplomatic terrain in Islamabad where officials “negotiate with a gun to their head,” as one South Asia expert put it. “She’s a small woman, and it’s easy for people to underestimate her,” says Vali Nasr, a former senior adviser to the special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. “But Pakistanis came to understand she’s tough as nails.”

Another colleague, Lisa Curtis, an ex-CIA analyst, recalls meeting Patterson, wearing “a cute little suit,” one evening in 2008 at a gathering at her Islamabad residence. “I could tell that she got Pakistan,” says Curtis. “She had the kind of humility that is necessary to understand that you’re in a place where people can manipulate you.”

A graduate of Wellesley College, Patterson, 61, stands out both for her ability to read people and for her diligence, even in a culture known for workaholics. During a review of Afghanistan policy, for instance, she was up till two in the morning, videoconferencing with the president; the next day, says Council on Foreign Relations’ Daniel Markey, who was in Islamabad at the time, she would work out and catch up on the news, then meet him for breakfast. “She’s an incredible grind,” he says, laughing.

The walls of her temporary office at the State Department are bare, except for a red thumbtack that holds up a tattered map of Pakistan, with one corner peeling off. She got to know the country well, visiting places like Karachi and Abbottabad. Since then, Pakistanis have been outraged over the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound and also over a CIA contractor who fatally shot two men in Lahore. At the Washington conference, she described some of the difficulties of her posting but, as she told me, “I loved Pakistan.” Many people wish she were still there: Vali Nasr, formerly of the State Department, says diplomatic relations have gone “off a cliff” since she left.

Her “hands-on managerial style,” as Vali Nasr puts it, worked well in Islamabad and helped her write unusually perceptive reports: Distance obscures detail, and people in Washington often have a cartoon-like picture of Pakistan. Patterson did not. An avid student of South Asia, with Husain Haqqani’s Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military on her Kindle, she wrote candidly in her diplomatic cables about the army. Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the head of the Pakistani military, she said in a February 2009 cable, is “direct, frank, and thoughtful,” but “tends to mumble,” so you have to listen closely. Patterson certainly was, and eventually she became his confidante or, as CFR’s Markey, put it, “a shoulder to cry on.”  Yet she kept enough distance to know that when Kayani talked about democracy, he was more likely trying to build trust in his audience rather than expressing a commitment. His remarks about freedom, she wrote later, reinforced his “reputation as a friend of democracy and preserved his options.”

These days, Patterson is hoping, a little dreamily, that her Arabic will come back—she was proficient, back in 1984—and plans to work on modernizing the U.S. aid program in Egypt after she arrives. She tries not to think about Pakistan, explaining that she prefers to look ahead rather than dwell on the past. These days, Cairo is a good setting for that kind of optimism.