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November 12, 2016

What to expect from Washington


November 12, 2016

Donald Trump can be a hard man to pin down. He says whatever comes into his mind at any given time. He doesn’t hide that the campaign positions on his website were written by a committee and he still hasn’t got around to reading them. Figuring out what he has planned for Pakistan is difficult since we have only a few stray comments to go by. But we should still be worried. Very worried.

Most of the times he has mentioned Pakistan it has been in the context of nuclear weapons. He once suggested posting a permanent 10,000 soldiers in Afghanistan specifically to keep an eye on our nuclear weapons. That would not be too different from what the US is doing now but Trump, unlike Barack Obama, has a friendly and newly-empowered Republican majority in Congress which is as extreme as him. Trump will have to rely on that majority to pass the legislation he will sign and it wouldn’t be too surprising if they link aid to military action against the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network or even demand inspections of our nuclear sites and technology.

Perhaps our biggest worry should be the nuclear arms race Trump might spur around the world. He has talked blithely about countries like Japan and Saudi Arabia obtaining nuclear weapons. One of his likely first actions will be to torpedo the US-led agreement with Iran. Should he do that, Iran will know the US is coming for it and might furiously start working to enrich uranium and develop a weapon. That in turn, could scare the Saudis into working on a weapon of their own.

On Kashmir, Trump couldn’t resist boasting of his skills as a deal-maker and said he wanted to help negotiate between Pakistan and India. Trying to get third parties involved in Kashmir and convincing India that UN resolutions are more important than the Simla Agreement has long been a foreign policy goal of ours. But we should not expect Trump to get involved. He may say whatever is on his mind but he has always shown one thing: he rewards friends and goes after enemies with a vengeance. Muslims, to put it mildly, have not been overly enthused about the prospect of President Donald Trump. Indians, especially Hindu Americans, have been far more receptive.

The president-elect even appeared at a Hindus for Trump campaign event where evil bearded terrorists, armed with their weapon of choice – the light sabre – attacked Bollywood dancers and were saved by US Navy SEALS. The Bollywood dancers and Navy SEALS then pledged allegiance to the US flag and sang to Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA. This will be the Trump presidency in a nutshell. Lots of absurd spectacle and garish pageantry for allies and retribution for opponents, with Trump at the centre of it all. We should expect to be the opponents and for retribution to be swift and decisive.

And we should forget about ever getting more F-16s since Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was behind blocking the F-16s deal and is expected to be a key member of the Trump administration.

For once, at least we can take some comfort in the fact that there is a lot of continuity to foreign policy in Washington. The career bureaucrats at the state and defence departments are used to getting their way regardless of the president in power. That may not be too reassuring since US foreign policy, especially towards Pakistan, is a sinister combination of violence and hypocrisy but Trump is someone who likes blowing things up to make them even more sinister and violent.

The best we can hope for is that Trump wants to enjoy the perks of the presidency and none of the responsibilities. When he was interviewing candidates for the vice presidency, Trump reportedly offered it to his primary opponent John Kasich and told him he would give him control of domestic and foreign policy. When asked what he would do, Trump’s campaign manager said he would make America great again. The feeling is he might treat the day-to-day job as a burden and be a ceremonial figurehead, like the British monarch.

The most immediate danger to Pakistan may be the one posed to Pakistani students and workers in the US or to those who hope to be studying or working there in the future. Trump has made too many promises to his white base to blithely ignore them. A total ban on Muslims may be moderated but he can make life so difficult for those already in the US that a ban may not be needed. The type of people who will staff a Trump administration are those who were responsible for notorious laws like the one in Arizona which allowed law enforcement to ask anyone they thought to be an undocumented immigrant for their papers.

Official harassment combined with the type of naked racism and xenophobia which has become even more public after Trump’s victory would be enough to drive anyone out. He has shown in his feud with Pakistani-Americans Khizr and Ghazala Khan that there is no slight too small for him. He will unload on anyone who crosses him and his hair-trigger temperament puts Muslims in America in extreme peril.

But Donald Trump has his weaknesses. He is extremely susceptible to flattery. There has been a lot of nonsense chatter in the US that he is an active agent of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russian-bashing has long been a US tradition but it is true that Putin is the one foreign leader about whom Trump has nothing but praise. That is most probably because Putin, canny operator that he is, is the only foreign leader who has been effusive about Trump while everyone else has not tried to hide their disdain for the man. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson even joked that there are places in New York City he avoids because of the possibility he may run into Donald Trump.

Trump’s other weakness is his business interests. His closeness to Russia may be linked to his borrowing a lot of money from Russian oligarchs at a time when US banks were reluctant to lend to him. He can be relied upon to use the office of the presidency to inflate his wealth. Trump has more or less been out of the construction business and now earns money through his name by selling it to the highest bidder so they can emblazon it on their products, be it a high-rise building, a fake university or a brand of undrinkable vodka.

To get favourable treatment in a Trump administration, Pakistan should appeal to his vanity and greed. That would be easy enough to do. We have enough housing projects; perhaps some real-estate mogul can call his next housing development Trump Town.


The writer is a journalist based in Karachi.

Email: [email protected]

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