In some Western circles, there's a hard-edged view of Pakistan as a covert nuclear power, a nation where terrorists find harbor.
And this is the same country that has dispatched to Washington an ambassador who wears high-heeled shoes with gold toes. Somehow it doesn't compute, the thousand-watt smile, the manicured nails, the British diplomas and blue-blood pedigree that, had it not been for Mogul interlopers a few centuries back, would have made her, the ambassador says wistfully, a princess.
Meet Maleeha Lodhi, 40, who is unlike any envoy her country has sent off to the United States before.
It is hard to imagine a more beguiling bearer of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's tidings than this editor whose upbringing included a stint in a convent school run by Irish nuns.
The message for President Clinton and Washington, in brief, is this: Help Bhutto and her country, because the failure of a moderate Islamic government whose leaders were chosen in free elections can only boost the cause of radicalism.
"If we succeed, then you have a model of democracy in the Muslim world, where, let's face it, democracy hasn't flourished," said Lodhi, ensconced on a turquoise sofa in the lavish Islamabad house she shares with one of her brothers, during a brief return home.
"We're struggling out here, but there is not enough knowledge," Lodhi complained. "We're depicted sometimes as a rogue state, and that is not fair."
Last October, it was at the dinner table of her home, which is decorated with plush Oriental carpets and British-era prints, that Lodhi, who is the same age as Bhutto, was offered the Washington job by the prime minister-elect.
"I was dumbfounded," recalled the usually eloquent Lodhi. "I couldn't utter a word."
Lodhi said she asked for some time to think over the offer, but two days later Bhutto called her back and said: This is it, take it or leave it. Lodhi said yes, temporarily shelving plans to write a book about the last five stormy years of Pakistani history, in which she was both player and onlooker.
Operator and wheeler-dealer are labels Pakistani observers frequently affix to this woman, sometimes in envy.
Her father, a former navy officer who rose to head the Attock Oil Co., may have taught her how to network. Amer, the older of her two brothers, was a globe-trotting liaison for the infamous Bank of Credit and Commerce International, whose collapse caused losses to depositors in excess of $10 billion.
Now trying to cut deals with Pakistan's government on behalf of defense firms such as the French maker of the Mirage warplane, the New York-based brother has become a friend and business partner of Benazir Bhutto's husband. He also turned informant for the Manhattan district attorney's office in its BCCI probe.
Ambassador Lodhi's tenures editing two of Pakistan's most prestigious English-language dailies have entailed much more than newspapering. She is said to have brokered Bhutto's access to the late chief of army staff, Asif Nawaz, which helped pave the way for Bhutto's return to power last year. Journalists say she is also friendly with her country's spymasters, including Gen. Javed Ashraf, the inter-services intelligence chief.
"Maleeha has always had a very sharp eye for power," one columnist said. "She knows instinctively where power is likely to gravitate."
So, not surprisingly, her fellow journalists say, when Bhutto fell from power in 1990 and archrival Nawaz Sharif succeeded her, Lodhi became close to Sharif's brother, Shabaz.
To show where her true loyalties lay during last autumn's electoral campaign that returned Bhutto to office, Lodhi passed along "little bits" of advice to the prime minister-to-be on relations with India, the United States and China. That may have given Bhutto the idea to name her to the most important post in Pakistani diplomacy, Lodhi now believes.
Cocktail party chatter and the circumstantial evidence of their identical ages have fostered rumors that Lodhi and Bhutto were girlhood chums. Not so, Lodhi said. They met in London in 1984 when Bhutto was in self-imposed exile during the regime of President Zia ul-Haq, the general who had ordered the Benazir's father, former President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, hanged in 1979. Lodhi was working as a lecturer at her alma mater, the London School of Economics.
It was during those difficult Zia years that the aspiring professor got her first taste of journalism. She wrote a 1,000-word article critical of Pakistan's military dictator that was printed in The Muslim, the country's only liberal newspaper at the time.
"This made me aware of the sort of power journalism had. Maybe not power, but that you could have an impact," she recalled. She was hooked.
Lodhi returned to Pakistan in 1986 after martial law had been lifted. Her phones were tapped and she was followed anyway. She joined The Muslim full-time to look after the op-ed pages.
A year later, the editor-in-chief left and she was offered his job. When two male employees approached her and said they could not work for a woman, Lodhi told them that they were free to quit.
Lodhi is far from being a yes-woman. She still has not joined Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party and reportedly has stung the prime minister with her critiques, especially of Bhutto's first term in power. When three U.S. senators recently visited Islamabad, Lodhi volunteered, Bhutto introduced her thusly: "Meet Maleeha. She's my strongest critic."
"In a way, she is right," Lodhi added.
But only to a point, perhaps. Some critics Pakistan accuse Lodhi of using her newspapers to promote certain business interests, including the government's purchase of Mirage warplanes. One Western correspondent swears he saw a Bhutto aide writing an article that appeared the next day in Lodhi's newspaper, The News, and bylined "by our correspondent."
The newly minted ambassador arrived in Washington this January to the coldest weather she had ever experienced. U.S.-Pakistani relations were not much better.
Once-lavish U.S. assistance to Pakistan has been halted since 1990 because of suspicions that this country is building a nuclear bomb. Last year, there was sharp debate about whether the former U.S. ally should be placed on the State Department's terrorism list because of suspicions that it might be supplying Muslim insurgents in Indian-ruled Kashmir.
"Where I'd disagree with my fellow Pakistanis is that it's no use to act like the jilted lover," Lodhi said. "Let's develop a new relationship."
She appears to be doing just that. When she presented her credentials at the White House in February, Clinton declared that he shared Pakistan's "concerns on the abuse of human rights in Kashmir." Indians fumed. Pakistanis were jubilant.
The same age as many members of the Clinton Adminstration, Lodhi finds doing business easy in Washington, where, she said, there are far fewer protocol niceties than in London.
Lodhi gets up at 7:30 a.m., works as late as midnight and often goes to the office Saturdays and Sundays to stay in contact with Islamabad, where, she admitted, many Foreign Office officials resent her as an outsider, and a woman to boot, vaulting over so many senior career diplomats.
The undisputed coup of Lodhi's ambassadorship would be obtaining a lifting or waiver of the so-called Pressler Amendment that bars U.S. military or economic aid to Pakistan unless the White House certifies that it is not constructing nuclear weapons.
"The fact we're a democratic Muslim country gets people's attention," Lodhi says. "Whether we can translate that attention into action is my job."
Name: Maleeha Lodhi.
Title: Pakistani ambassador to the United States.
Personal: Presentation Convent School, Rawalpindi. Bachelor's degree in economics and Ph.D. in politics, London School of Economics. Lecturer in politics and sociology, London School of Economics. Editor of The Muslim and The News. Divorced. One son, 15.
Quote: "We're struggling out here, but there is not enough knowledge. We're depicted sometimes as a rogue state, and that is not fair."