Play­ing a New Tune

Will he or won’t he suc­ceed as the next US Pres­i­dent?

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Tahira Sa­jid

The U.S. Pres­i­dent-elect, Don­ald Trump, re­cently caused quite a stir in the me­dia with his overly en­thu­si­as­tic com­ments in a con­grat­u­la­tory phone call from Prime Min­is­ter Nawaz Sharif of Pak­istan. Trump’s char­ac­ter­is­tic style of com­mu­ni­ca­tion that di­gresses from tra­di­tional diplomacy ex­pected of a pres­i­dent, was a com­plete sur­prise to the Pak­istani premier. Sharif promptly re­leased a tran­script of the call to the lo­cal me­dia as proof of his own pop­u­lar­ity with the in­com­ing Amer­i­can leader.

The tran­script quickly hit head­lines world­wide de­spite some skep­ti­cism sur­round­ing its ac­cu­racy. Ap­par­ently, dur­ing the call Trump praised the “amaz­ing coun­try” of Pak­istan with “one of the most in­tel­li­gent peo­ple,” and of­fered to help re­solve re­gional con­flicts, say­ing that he is “will­ing and ready to play any role” that Pak­istan wants “to ad­dress and find so­lu­tions to out­stand­ing prob­lems.” Since the In­dia-Pak­istan Kash­mir dis­pute has been the largest flash­point of con­flict be­tween the two nu­clear-armed neigh­bours for decades, the of­fer was in­ter­preted in Pak­istan as val­i­da­tion of the Pak­istan po­si­tion. The lo­cal me­dia re­ported a rise in op­ti­mism and good­will in the Pak­istani cit­i­zenry to­wards the in­com­ing U.S. Pres­i­dent. How­ever, a care­ful anal­y­sis would find this op­ti­mism to be mis­placed at best and rest­ing on a sim­plis­tic world view re­moved from ac­tual geo-po­lit­i­cal re­al­i­ties, or mere wish­ful think­ing.

The 2016 U.S. elec­tion cam­paign has come to be known as the most di­vi­sive cam­paign in Amer­i­can his­tory that forced voters to choose be­tween two highly dis­liked can­di­dates and also brought to light the chang­ing pri­or­i­ties of the Amer­i­can elec­torate. Af­ter eight years of Pres­i­dent Obama, they seemed ready for change again for a va­ri­ety of rea­sons too com­pli­cated to write about here. Race, se­cu­rity and eco­nom­ics topped the list and Don­ald Trump emerged suc­cess­ful in sway­ing enough voters to his vi­sion.

From the be­gin­ning, Trump de­fied pop­u­lar polls and pun­dits and se­cured Repub­li­can nom­i­na­tion with ease. Then, he calmly bagged the elec­tion win, dash­ing the hopes of the first fe­male pres­i­den­tial can­di­date of a ma­jor party and for­mer First Lady and Sec­re­tary of State, Hil­lary Clin­ton. De­spite los­ing pop­u­lar vote to the Demo­cratic nom­i­nee by the re­ported 3 mil­lion in the high­est ever loss for any pres­i­dent-elect in U.S. his­tory, Don­ald Trump was de­clared to be the right­ful 45th Pres­i­dent-elect of the United States in ac­cor­dance with the rules of the U.S. Elec­toral Sys­tem and is set to take of­fice on Jan­uary 20, 2017.

Through­out the cam­paign year, the Pres­i­dent-elect was ac­cused of run­ning an ag­gres­sive and di­vi­sive cam­paign by his op­po­nents. His many con­tro­ver­sial state­ments against fel­low Amer­i­cans of di­verse eth­nic back­grounds, his pro­posal of cre­at­ing a Mus­lim registry (con­sid­ered rem­i­nis­cent of Nazi Ger­many) and of im­pos­ing a tem­po­rary ban on Mus­lims from en­ter­ing the coun­try, mock­ing a dis­abled re­porter who dis­agreed with him, us­ing de­grad­ing lan­guage for women while ad­vo­cat­ing pun­ish­ment for those seek­ing abor­tion and his sup­port for the use of tor­ture in in­ter­ro­ga­tion did not en­dear him to many Amer­i­cans with a dif­fer­ent vi­sion of their coun­try.

His per­sis­tent re­fusal to make his tax re­turns pub­lic, and his al­leged use of loop­holes to avoid pay­ing taxes for 18 years made him an even more con­tro­ver­sial can­di­date. He even cast doubt on the coun­try’s own elec­tion sys­tem with al­le­ga­tions of ex­pected rig­ging and voter fraud, and sought to un­der­mine in­tel­li­gence agen­cies’ ca­pa­bil­ity to do their job when they ques­tioned Rus­sia’s role in hack­ing and pos­si­bly in­flu­enc­ing the elec­tion out­come. How­ever, none of this was enough to dis­suade his loyal sup­port­ers of whom Trump had fa­mously de­clared in Iowa: “I could stand in the mid­dle of Fifth Av­enue and shoot some­body and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK?” Not sur­pris­ingly then, his ap­proval rating con­tin­ues to rise and is re­ported in some polls to be higher now than any­time dur­ing the cam­paign.

Don­ald Trump had es­tab­lished him­self as the un­pre­dictable can­di­date de­void of po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness early on and con­tin­ues to proudly own that la­bel. He picks spats on twit­ter with crit­ics and com­mu­ni­cates di­rectly with his mil­lions of fol­low­ers on seem­ingly in­con­se­quen­tial is­sues. He has even claimed to not need daily in­tel­li­gence brief­ings con­sid­ered rou­tine for any pres­i­dent-elect be­cause he thinks he is “re­ally smart” – earn­ing him crit­i­cism from the for­mer CIA head, Leon Panetta: “Trump has no ex­pe­ri­ence or back­ground in gov­ern­ment, for­eign pol­icy, na­tional se­cu­rity, or coun­tert­er­ror­ism…” and should find time for the brief­ings. Even Pres­i­dent Obama re­marked that gov­ern­ing well came down to be­ing well-in­formed and not be­ing smart.

The in­ter­na­tional and lo­cal me­dia that have cov­ered Trump ex­ten­sively for years are still try­ing to un­der­stand his real po­si­tion on var­i­ous is­sues. Since he has been in the pub­lic eye for decades, his pre­vi­ous and chang­ing views are doc­u­mented in de­tail and have been dis­cussed Yet, Trump’s plans as fu­ture pres­i­dent and Leader of the Free World may be in some ways as much a mys­tery even now as they were over a year ago. His pro­pos­als dur­ing the cam­paign were ac­cused of lack­ing speci­ficity and re­ly­ing more on grand­stand­ing rhetoric. His com­mu­ni­ca­tions team reg­u­larly ap­peared to face the un­en­vi­able prospect of try­ing to ex­plain and some­times ex­plain away what came to be known as his ‘flipflops.’

How­ever, as Don­ald Trump con­tin­ues to ap­ply un­con­ven­tional meth­ods in his deal­ings keep­ing the me­dia and his op­po­nents for­ever guess­ing his true in­tent, it is clear that as a long time re­al­ity TV star he is in­cred­i­bly savvy about us­ing in­for­ma­tion to his ad­van­tage and tak­ing risks for rat­ings when­ever he deems nec­es­sary. His crit­ics think such risk-tak­ing and dis­re­gard for con­se­quences makes for good re­al­ity TV, but one re­quires a dif­fer­ent set of crit­i­cal think­ing skills while in­ter­act­ing on the in­ter­na­tional level: his friendly over­tures to­wards Rus­sia, crit­i­cism of NATO, and op­po­si­tion to the Iran Nu­clear Deal have sent off alarm bells for many US al­lies di­rectly af­fected by his po­si­tions. His for­eign pol­icy shifts be­came ev­i­dent with the con­grat­u­la­tory call he took from the Tai­wanese Pres­i­dent that marked a change from decades of US po­si­tion on one-China pol­icy. His cabi­net picks also in­di­cate an at­tempt to chal­lenge es­tab­lished po­si­tions of the out-go­ing ad­min­is­tra­tion. The se­lec­tion of Rex Tiller­son who re­ceived a medal of free­dom from Putin as Sec­re­tary of State has been highly con­tro­ver­sial, just as choos­ing David Fried­man as US Am­bas­sador to Is­rael deemed an equally un­pop­u­lar choice for his hard­line stance on the two-state so­lu­tion to Is­rael-Pales­tine con­flict.

It is in this con­text that the phone

Trump’s plans as fu­ture pres­i­dent and Leader of the Free World may be in some ways quite a mys­tery.

call be­tween Don­ald Trump and Nawaz Sharif begs re­view. To be sure, the Kash­mir is­sue be­tween In­dia and Pak­istan is a cause of con­tin­ued ten­sion be­tween the two coun­tries and though In­dia strongly op­poses it, Pak­istan would wel­come any me­di­a­tion from the United States. To this end, it is easy to fall prey to op­ti­mism of find­ing a so­lu­tion through in­volve­ment of the high­est of­fice of the world’s most pow­er­ful coun­try, and many Pak­ista­nis may choose to re­tain that il­lu­sion. How­ever, oth­ers are of the opinion that Trump’s friendly over­tures to­wards Pak­istan may sim­ply be at­trib­uted to his char­ac­ter­is­tic re­fusal to play by tra­di­tional rules of diplomacy and lack of re­gard or un­der­stand­ing of re­gional geopo­lit­i­cal in­tri­ca­cies due to his lack of ex­pe­ri­ence in gov­er­nance. There ap­pears to be lit­tle chance of Trump ac­tu­ally go­ing ahead with his of­fer and of­fend­ing In­dia, an­other nu­clear power and a coun­try where he has strong busi­ness in­ter­ests. He has openly called him­self a “friend” to the In­dian peo­ple. His pre­vi­ous po­si­tion on Pak­istan also serves as a re­minder: in 2012 Trump had tweeted: “Get it straight: Pak­istan is not our friend. We’ve given them bil­lions and bil­lions of dol­lars, and what did we get? Be­trayal and dis­re­spect – and much worse. #TimeToGetTough”.

It would be in Pak­istan’s in­ter­est to keep a wait-and-see ap­proach. For the sake of the op­ti­mists among us, the best case sce­nario would be that the Pres­i­dent-elect keeps his word to Sharif, and finds value in help­ing to re­solv­ing this sim­mer­ing con­flict once for all. He is known to defy ex­pec­ta­tion and could very well be ready to sur­prise us all yet again. For now, to his com­pa­tri­ots and to the rest of the world, the new oc­cu­pant of the Oval Of­fice and his world view shall both re­main a mys­tery.

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