The country that arguably poses Barack Obama's biggest foreign policy challenge just got a little harder to deal with. I missed it at the time, but during his visit to Pakistan last week the normally circumspect Defense Secretary Robert Gates spoke carelessly in a way that has even further inflamed that country's intense, paranoid anti-Americanism. Gates was asked about recent reports that Xe, the private security contractor formerly known as Blackwater, has been operating in Pakistan on a U.S. government contract--one that allegedly includes everything from intelligence collection to aiding assassination plots. The U.S. has strongly denied those allegations. But Gates gave a loosely worded answer that was taken as confirmation. The Pentagon and the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad quickly walked back the statement, saying it has been misinterpreted. It would appear that the damage has been done, however. Here's an editorial from Pakistan's notoriously demagogic Nation newspaper:

This paper took the lead in exposing the government’s acquiescence to let the firm, with a reputation of committing targeted killings in Iraq, operate in the country and provided repeated evidence of their dark designs as well as deeds in Pakistan. Once again, the free media did a national service of crucial significance; earlier it had joined the lawyers and civil society to successfully restore the deposed judiciary. This effort must not go waste, nor any attempt at muzzling its voice be allowed. The ill-famed outfit must be made to pack up and go before it could do any serious harm to our security interests.

Meanwhile, Gates was also questioned about the widespread belief within Pakistan--incited by Sy Hersh's reporting--that the U.S. is plotting to snatch away the country's nuclear weapons.

In an interview Thursday night with Pakistan's Express 24/7 television station, journalist Quatrina Hosain said that conspiracy theories about alleged U.S. plots to seize Pakistan's nuclear weapons had taken "on the hue or the coloring of being real" because the American government hadn't formally refuted them.

Mr. Gates told her that the U.S. had no plans to seek control of the weapons and was comfortable with Pakistan's security measures for its nuclear bombs. Any rumors to the contrary, he said, were "all nonsense."

U.S. defense officials acknowledged that Mr. Gates had to deliver similar reassurances during his meetings with Pakistan's top military and civilian leadership, a sign of just how extensively the conspiracy theories have taken root here.

Dark designs and deeds--real or imagined--are what all too many Pakistanis think America is about.