It is a staple of American politics, when American politicians can be bothered to notice Malaysia, to sing the praises of Anwar Ibrahim, the more-or-less permanent opposition leader of that state. It is to the Obama Administration's rare credit that it has started to distance itself from Anwar, recognizing that Malaysia's government has made serious strides in the last several years, and that Ibrahim's unsavory past and ties do not make him a good partner in the region.
The Administration is so very bad at so much foreign policy, that we should actually take the opportunity to praise them when they do something right.
Anwar faces a crisis of his own making, distracting from his latest, quixotic attempt to move from opposition leader into government. In what was initially portrayed as a replay of his famous turn-of-the-millennium sodomy trial, he once again faces a sex scandal and trial. This time, however, there is video. And more importantly, there is the matter of the dynasty he is trying to create.
Here in the U.S., we are well-used to the scene of the politician's fall from grace via video and photograph, with infidelities real and imagined making their grainy way onto the evening news.
Sometimes the "evidence" is a set-up, and sometimes it is not. But the pattern is usually the same: First the politician and his wife go through a period of denial, then the politician’s wife goes on national TV and (as we saw with Eliot Spitzer, all too literally) stands by her man, defends him, and forgives him for his alleged sin. This is even truer when the wife has political experience or political ambitions, as was the case with Hillary Clinton or (at first) Elizabeth Edwards, to cite two of our better-known, recent political sex scandals. It was even true in the case of former Senator Larry Craig, whose wife defended him when he was arrested for allegedly trying to have gay sex in a public restroom at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
But in Malaysia, Dr. Wan Azizah, Anwar's wife, has been strangely silent, refusing even to comment on the possibility that a new video tape purporting to show her husband having sex with a female prostitute is genuine. Instead, over the weekend Anwar claimed that his wife, who is not coincidentally the President of his PKR Party, “is not interested in watching the video concerned.”
Anwar, who has become a past master at playing the victim card to deflect attention to his own sins, claimed it was all a set-up, a smear campaign. This is old hat for him. He made the same claim when B’nai B’rith International wrote to Congress and the Obama Administration last year asking that the government cut all ties with Anwar because of his history of anti-Semitic remarks. He claimed it was a a smear when he refused to allow his own DNA to be tested in order to back up his claims of innocence in his current sodomy trial. Anwar also claimed it was a smear last year when Zaid Ibrahim, a respected lawyer, resigned from the opposition PKR party and accused Anwar and his wife and daughter of running a feudal dynasty and rigging internal elections. Zaid’s main charge was that Anwar was more interested in his personal power than in real and substantive policies.
In the world of Anwar Ibrahim, any allegation against him, even by those closest to him, is always a smear, and he is always the victim. Of course, all too often, the shadowy figures behind those smears are Jews.
Yet the more interesting issue here is not that Anwar, when accused of wrongdoing, invariably goes on the offensive and tries to portray himself like a martyr, stretching the imagination to compare himself to real martyrs like Nelson Mandela or Aung San Suu Kyi, or the democratically-elected government of Malaysia as the equivalent of Mubarak's Egypt. It is to Hillary Clinton's credit that her State Department has begun to back away from him and his ravings.
No, the really interesting question is why his wife has not come out more vociferously to stand by her man, and has instead simply echoed others in the PKR party, of which she is president, in making the predictable claim that it is all a put-up job.
In fact, rather than visibly and substantively respond to the allegations against Ibrahim, her most recent public statement is to say that she does not regret marrying Anwar, and, perhaps somewhat tellingly, that when he proposed marriage, she had dreams about seeing his face on election posters.
“I have never regretted. Before Anwar, I accepted another proposal. But when Anwar asked me to be his wife, I dreamt of lots of posters that looked like election posters,” Wan recently said. “All these posters were of Anwar. For me, that was a sign from God so I picked Anwar.”
Election posters. A proposal for marriage elicits dreams of election posters.
“All these posters were of Anwar,” Wan said. “For me, that was a sign from God, so I picked Anwar.”
In the States, we generally assume that in a marriage with a politically ambitious wife and her husband, the public face, in the middle of a sex scandal, the husband is going to get all but literally castrated in private, followed by a stand-by-her-man routine for the cameras. Silence is usually a tacit admission that the straying was too awful to be masked.
We usually don't end up with a confession of pre-marital dreams of election posters.
And that may take us to the ultimate explanation of why Anwar’s wife -- who is after all the President of PKR, and let’s face it, the most likely successor to Anwar should he eventually step down or step away from his political career -- is being so careful. It may be that she intends that her own face, or that of her daughter Nurul Izzah, is the next one that could appear on election posters. If Anwar is persona non grata with the Administration, perhaps a different face (one not on imaginary election posters, but the real things) would be a better one for the American political establishment.
In her previous career as Apologist-in-Chief to the Adulterer-in-Chief, Hillary Clinton came out and dealt directly with Monica Lewinsky. (Of course, she did so by accusing a shadowy cabal of enemies of setting the whole thing up, but really, that was her way back then. Not now. Certainly.) But Wan Azizah is perhaps as adamant as she is, because even the slightest admission of suspicion on her part would cause the whole edifice of Anwar’s opposition PKR Party and, therefore, the whole Anwar Family Dynasty, to crumble.
The State Department would do well to remember that Anwar has not only denied that he is the man in the now-famous sex video, but also the allegations that his wife and daughter were turning their backs on him.
In this, he is probably right. Neither Wan Azizah nor Nurul Izzah can afford to turn their backs on Anwar, whatever happens. They are all in this together, and should remain so in the minds of the foreign policy professionals charged with maintaining our relations with this rare, functional Muslim democracy.