MEXICO CITY – The U.S. ambassador to Mexico faced a harsh choice as the release of secret cables made his job nearly impossible: Quit to rescue one of Washington's most strategic relationships or weather the storm to show that diplomats should not suffer for doing their jobs.
In the end, Carlos Pascual resigned, the first U.S. ambassador to lose his job over thousands of sensitive diplomatic cables released by the WikiLeaks website.
His frank cables detailing infighting and jealousies among Mexican security forces contrasted with public U.S. praise for Mexico's fight against drug trafficking. They deeply angered Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who repeatedly stated he could no longer trust the ambassador. Even opposition lawmakers say they became reluctant to meet with Pascual.
The crisis revealed the fine line President Barack Obama's administration has had to walk between appeasing important allies and standing up for its diplomats. With potentially thousands more documents to be unveiled, the question is whether the outcome of the Mexico dilemma will set a precedent.
"Ambassador Pascual made a principled decision to resign because there were issues more important than him. It was self-sacrificing of him," said Andrew Selee, director of the Mexico Institute at the Washington-based Wilson Center. "The administration takes a long term view of Mexico. They are looking for the best way to keep cooperation going. But in the U.S. Congress there will be difficult questions about whether the U.S. government is being pushed around."
Mexico is not the only country where leaked cables have deeply complicated the work of U.S. ambassadors.
The U.S. ambassador to Libya, Gene Cretz, was recalled to Washington in January after WikiLeaks posted his blunt assessment of Moammar Gadhafi's eccentricities. U.S. officials told The Associated Press then that Cretz might be removed from his post to avoid straining what was considered just months ago to be an improving relationship with Libya. Those concerns evaporated when the rebellion against Gadhafi's rule erupted. Cretz, who never returned to Libya but is still the ambassador, now participates in meetings with the Libyan opposition and briefings for Congress on the U.S. military operations to protect the rebels.
In Kenya, WikiLeaks cables made outspoken Ambassador Michael Ranneberger's shaky relationship with the government worse, especially one that described the East African country as a "swamp of flourishing corruption." One member of parliament submitted a motion to censure Ranneberger and have the U.S. government recall him, but the motion was withdrawn in February. Kenya's government may not have wanted to anger or embarrass the U.S. — a major partner and donor — particularly since Ranneberger is scheduled to depart his post within months.
For now, the WikiLeaks uproar has led to an ambassador's downfall only in Mexico.
That speaks to Mexico's unique relationship with the United States, one marked by more than two centuries of wars and mistrust — but also one of mutual fascination and dependence. A 2,000-mile border, decades of immigration and trade and the shared problem of drug trafficking makes Mexico a prickly but indispensable U.S. ally.
Neither country can easily dismiss the other's concerns or allow relations to freeze, even if it sometimes means swallowing national pride.
"There is almost no country as important to the United States across so many multilateral issues as Mexico," said Shannon O'Neil, a Latin American expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "I don't expect (the WikiLeaks scandal) to have the same effect elsewhere in the region, perhaps in the world."
The furor over WikiLeaks in Mexico also took on a personal tone unseen in other countries. Calderon repeatedly complained in interviews that he could no longer trust Pascual, strongly hinting the envoy should be removed.
The Mexican president's anger at the ambassador has led to speculation that there may be more to the problem than WikiLeaks. Many have speculated that Pascual, a Cuban-American career diplomat who was appointed in 2009, made a faux pas with his choice of a girlfriend: the daughter of Francisco Rojas, the congressional leader of the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party.
"While there has been an outcry, very few other governments have moved into a personal level about the writer of the leaked cables," O'Neil said.
Whatever the reasons, it became increasingly clear that Pascual could no longer do his job effectively. Even opposition politicians criticized Pascual for trampling on Mexico's dignity, not so surprising for a country of immense national pride and determination to stand up to its powerful northern neighbor.
"In Mexico, the government, Congress, the armed forces and public opinion are all very sensitive about the opinions of the United States," said Sen. Carlos Navarette of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party. "I hope the next ambassador learns the lesson and behaves diplomatically and respectfully toward Mexico."
Sen. Silvio Aureoles, of the same party, told the AP that "relations between the Senate and the ambassador froze completely," but he acknowledged that he believed "the immense majority of what Pascual said was true."
"There is a saying in Mexico: 'Truth doesn't sin, but it does hurt,'" Aureoles said.
The U.S. government — as with the Libyan ambassador — had made clear it believed Pascual did nothing wrong, insisting until last week there were no plans to remove him. In her statement announcing Pascual's departure, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said twice that it was with "great reluctance" that his resignation was accepted.
So far, Pascual's resignation has caused little public reaction in Washington, overshadowed by the upheaval in the Middle East. But that could change during Senate confirmation hearings for a new ambassador, experts said.
"It's likely that if the Obama administration tries to appoint another ambassador it could generate a national backlash in the U.S. over why Ambassador Pascual had to resign in the first place," Selee said.
"The Obama administration may feel the relationship with Mexico is so strategic that they are willing to overlook some of the rough edges that exist. But for the U.S. Congress, I suspect they will ... be concerned that they are ceding to pressure from the Mexican government."
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