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December 3, 2016

The telephone gambit


December 3, 2016

In the Stanley Kubrick satire Dr Strangelove, the US president has to call the Soviet head of state to tell him that a rogue general has launched a nuclear attack. An excruciatingly hilarious phone call follows. The US president has a long, awkward exchange of pleasantries – “Well it’s good that you’re fine and I’m fine. I agree with you. It’s great to be fine” – and the Soviet premier is more annoyed that the US president doesn’t call to chat regularly than he is about the impending nuclear attack. One imagines many such calls between Donald Trump and his counterparts over the next four years.

Our Press Information Bureau’s readout of Nawaz Sharif’s congratulatory phone call to Trump is similarly bizarre. The words attributed to Trump are clearly his own; no one else is able to replicate Trump’s Dadaist babble. The stream-of-consciousness rambling and copious use of the superlative is unmistakably Trumpian and we can all have a laugh at that. Laughter may be the only way to cope with the impending horror of Donald Trump being the most powerful person in the world.

But once we’re done chuckling, let’s try to figure out why the PIB did what it did. The most likely explanation is that they, used to lectures from US presidents to do more, were so delighted by the words from praise from Trump that they decided to release them verbatim. Here – they could tell a cynical press – is the US president-elect saying such great things about Nawaz Sharif.

Even if that were the case, what the PIB did was a massive breach of diplomatic protocol. Such readouts are not meant to make news. They are rote recitations of what our leader said with a few vague generalisations about what the foreign leader said in return. Then newspapers can say the two leaders had a mutually beneficial exchange of ideas and they promised to work together in the future and everyone else can forget the conversation ever took place.

Pakistan might just get away with it this time because Trump is not yet president and his transition team has other foreign policy issues to worry about – such as nominating a secretary of state. But there has been some pushback from his team. The statement issued by them in response to the PIB handout was more sedate, saying they had a productive conversation. Trump transition team members told the media that Pakistan’s version of the conversation “committed the president-elect to more than he had committed.” This was a more mature way of handling the phone conversation. Which leads us to the realisation that Pakistan’s bureaucracy is somehow even less professional than Donald Trump, of all people.

Trying to glean anything from a minutes-long conversation is a fool’s task – but we are fools. There is some understandable nervousness about the direction of Trump’s policy toward Pakistan. He is impulsive and capricious, talks loosely about nukes and demagogues against Muslims. But our Foreign Office mandarins should know that US foreign policy does not change much just because there is a new man in the White House. There has always been continuity in US relations with the rest of the world, with the only debates about whether they should bomb a country less or more.

Every war the US declares comes with the support of both major political parties and they have a remarkably similar view about relations with every country. The Democrats, ostensibly the more dovish party, were as hostile to the Soviet Union during the cold war as the Republicans. They were enthusiastic invaders of Iraq during both the Gulf wars.

In Pakistan, there has been a long-held view that Republicans are friendlier to Pakistan than Democrats. Before George W Bush launched his crusade against the Muslim world, Pakistani-Americans tended to even vote Republican. This belief was based on Ronald Reagan’s support to Zia’s Pakistan and Bush doing the same with Musharraf.

But if we are to take any lesson from these two examples, it is that US presidents are generally friendlier to Pakistani dictators. And Trump, more so than even the average president, seems to have a genuine soft spot for dictators. He has praised the Chinese government for Tiananmen, Saddam Hussein for killing terrorists and Vladimir Putin for everything. That may not be the best sign for Pakistan, assuming we would like to keep our democracy.

US policy towards Pakistan is unlikely to change. Trump has shown little interest in other countries beyond what they may do for his business. During his campaign, he visited Scotland to open one of his golf courses and said the crash of the sterling because of Brexit would be good for him since it would make it cheaper for Europeans to vacation there. His tilt towards India seems influenced in part by his business interests there; one of the first visitors he had after winning the election was from a delegation of his Indian business partners.

He told far-right British politician Nigel Farage to do something about windmills spoiling the view from his properties there and used a phone conversation with the Argentinean president to complain about a permit for his high-rise there being delayed.

Trump is your typical grease-palming businessman who will use his political power to enrich himself. We should know how to deal with that. Trump has just opened a new hotel in Washington. So long as we book rooms there during Washington trips we should keep Trump happy.

Since Trump seems so uninterested in foreign policy, his secretary of state will be unusually powerful. The names being bandied about – Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, General David Petraeus – are all conventional Republicans and will not be too unpredictable. We should worry more about the structural factors that will pull any US president in India’s direction. India is the growing economic superpower that also happens to be China’s biggest rival in the region. Had Hillary Clinton won the election, she would have been as pro-India as we fear Trump will be. The US will move further away from Pakistan because it sees that as being in its interest.

The situation right now is similar to that in the early-1990s, when US involvement in Afghanistan came to an end after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Pakistan was no longer as important to the US and it treated us accordingly. As the US draws down in Afghanistan, as we get closer to China, as our ties with India worsen, Trump and his team will see little reason to invest time and money in Pakistan. Our nuclear weapons will make sure the US always has to engage us but it will do so begrudgingly.

The best thing Pakistan can do right now is wait and see. There is more uncertainty surrounding Trump than any other US president because he is essentially a blank state. Instead of filling in the canvas with outlandish handouts, maybe we should train the PIB in crafting a press release. If we have more reports of the PM’s interactions with Trump along the lines of the congratulatory phone call, the US president probably won’t think he’s such a terrific guy any longer.

The writer is a journalist based in Karachi.

Email: [email protected]


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