Yasser Latif Hamdani
Last week Pakistan took the extraordinary step of releasing the transcript of Donald Trump’s fantastic phone conversation with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. It was extraordinary because, as a general rule, a press release contains the salient points of what one’s own side said and only a summary of the main points of what the other side said. In this case, the transcript was entirely about what Donald Trump said. Precious little of what Nawaz Sharif had to say was revealed.
Breach of diplomatic protocol is what many in the US have called this press release because it makes the President-elect look like a person of a very limited vocabulary. On our part, we seem to be hanging on to straws in the hope that Trump will be friendly to us, ignoring some of the real concerns that the US has towards Pakistan. The main grievance that the US has against Pakistan is that it has been duplicitous in its conduct as an ally. Trump himself had tweeted about this a couple of years ago. All that cannot be brushed under the carpet now that the phone call has happened.
Let us consider the facts. President Obama has not visited Pakistan once during his eight years in office. This is despite the fact that Obama had personal ties to the country. His late mother had lived and worked here. President Obama himself had visited Pakistan in the 1980s as a young student. And he is perhaps the only US president who pronounces the country’s name right. A keen student of history, Obama had shown great clarity of vision when he had declared that peace in South Asia, including Afghanistan, was only possible through a resolution of the Kashmir dispute. There was every reason for Pakistan in 2008 to capitalise by laying the groundwork for an efficient and workable relationship with then incoming US president. We failed to do so. Soon after Obama was elected as president, the Mumbai attacks happened, forcing Obama into the Indian corner.
Our state at the time was in denial about a number of things, including the threat that rogue non-state actors posed to Pakistan and the region at large. To be fair, the PPP government had its own problems. It continuously fought on many fronts, including against the judiciary which had opened a front against them. Then in 2011 the Abbottabad incident happened, followed in quick succession by the Salala attacks (interestingly on the third anniversary of the Mumbai attacks) and then the Raymond Davis episode. Pakistan-US ties hit rock bottom. The White House Spokesperson Josh Earnest had this to say about why Obama never visited Pakistan during his term in office: “At one point in his presidency, I do recall President Obama expressing a desire to travel to Pakistan. For a variety of reasons, some of them relating to the complicated relationship between our two countries at certain times over the last eight years, President Obama was not able to realise that ambition.”
What must be said, however, is that in this complicated relationship, both Pakistan and President Obama lost out on historic opportunities. In 2013, Pakistan completed its first democratic transition from one elected full term civilian government to the next. Speaking in Cairo in April 2009, a speech dubbed as a new beginning for US’ relationship with the Muslim World, Obama said, “That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people. Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own citizens. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things including the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; and the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere.”
Obama must surely have noted that Pakistan’s democratic transition was significant not just for the country with its troubled past in terms of military intervention in politics but for the Muslim world itself. Even Turkey, the most advanced amongst Muslim majority countries, there has never been a genuine democratic transition from one major political party to another. Erdogan’s victory in Turkey in 2002 was seen in terms of a power shift from the authoritarian, albeit secular, ruling elite to a representative political party, AKP. Since then, Erdogan has only consolidated more power in his person. Indonesia in a real sense only completed that transition in 2014 with the election of Obama lookalike Joko Widodo. In Malaysia, the same party, UMNO, has ruled since 1957. It was only in Pakistan that one major political party, PPP, gave way to another major party, PML-N. This significant milestone in modern Muslim history went uncelebrated, even unnoticed.
A visit by Obama in 2013 would have been a resounding endorsement of democracy in the Muslim world. It should have been a grand opportunity for the leader of the free world to bolster up Democrats and progressives in the world’s second-largest Muslim nation. He has often spoken about religious liberty and human rights. Pakistan needed a reminder for those high-minded ideals. Delivered in Islamabad, Obama’s words might actually have heralded the new beginning that his Cairo address anticipated. Instead, he chose to view US-Pakistan relations through the narrow prism of the India-Pakistan equation, despite having sworn not to hyphenate the two South Asian rivals. Obviously adding fuel to the fire was unsavoury and often abrasive rhetoric from our leadership but then you cannot clap with one hand.
Unfortunately, the real nature of international politics is fundamentally transactional. Even a president like Obama, so eloquent in his advocacy of liberal democracy, is ultimately hostage to the dictates of perceived immediate national interest. Is it any wonder that our response has always been tit for tat? So will Donald Trump visit Pakistan? Don’t hold your breath, yes, despite the phone call, or even, as the case may be, because of it. There is every indication that the White House under Donald Trump is going to be decidedly more hostile towards Pakistan.
There may not be any further vetoing of anti-Pakistan bills in Congress as was the case in Obama administration. We must get ready for a bumpy ride.