An 'I Love You' and a Phone Call: Breaking down the Nawaz-Trump 'Bromance'
By Michael Kugelman
We Washington analysts are such a smug lot.
First we arrogantly asserted that Donald Trump would never be a serious presidential candidate.
Then we haughtily harangued those who predicted he’d win the Republican Party nomination.
And then we pompously pooh-poohed any possibility of him being elected president.
Finally, we shrugged off our mistakes. After all, like meteorologists, we analysts are paid to be wrong sometimes.
And then we proffered another prediction: Trump’s electoral triumph would spell trouble for US-Pakistan relations.
It seemed a no-brainer. The bilateral relationship was already going downhill, impelled by a rapidly growing US-India relationship and by an outgoing Obama administration increasingly inclined to cut back on aid and arms.
And then came Trump.
He’s expressed anti-Muslim rhetoric and proposed policies that could prove damaging to Muslims. He’s taken rigid tough-on-terror positions that won’t tolerate “good militant/bad militant” thinking. He’s pledged an “America first” policy that suggests a strong disinclination to foreign aid. He’s telegraphed a strong affinity for India.
Trump himself has minced no words. “Get it straight,” he tweeted in 2012. “Pakistan is not our friend.”
Trump has even apparently considered as a Secretary of State candidate a US Congressman who has openly called for the independence of Balochistan.
And then came The Phone Call —the telephonic love-fest between Trump and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on November 30 that took the global media by storm.
Trump’s praise for Sharif and Pakistan was extraordinary in its effusiveness. “You are a terrific guy,” Trump said to Sharif, according to the Pakistani government’s readout. “I feel I am talking to a person I have known for long.” He insisted he was “ready and willing to play any role that you want me to play.” (Will Trump's cozying up to Sharif finally put to rest those misguided Trump-Imran Khan comparisons?)
Meanwhile, Trump referred to Pakistan as “amazing” and “fantastic,” and to Pakistanis as “one of the most intelligent people.”
In a heartbeat, Trump had lavished more praise on Sharif than he has on any other world leader and pushed back against Pakistan’s troubled global image.
This affair brings to mind that bizarre video—which went viral just after the election—of Trump beaming into a camera and exclaiming, “I love Pakistan!” Clearly, Trump is given to spontaneous expressions of pro-Pakistan sentiment.
To be sure, we shouldn’t make too much of this phone call. Trump, ever the businessman, likely wanted to make a strong impression with a full-fledged charm offensive and some verbal backslaps for good measure. A few minutes of happy talk doesn’t equate to a reset in relations.
Still, Trump’s exuberant exchange with Sharif raises some notable points.
Above all, there are several reasons to suggest that Trump could bring some benefits to the US-Pakistan relationship.
First, he’s indicated, both in the call with Sharif and on the campaign trail, that he would be willing to mediate the India-Pakistan dispute. This could raise hopes in Islamabad that Trump may be willing to delve into the Kashmir issue.
Second, he’s indicated a desire to scale down America’s presence in the world, including in Asia. A lighter US footprint in the region would be a blow to India— which benefits from an active America in Asia because it helps push back against China—and a boon for Beijing.
Third, Trump clearly has an affinity for generals. His administration could well have retired generals leading the State and Defense Departments as well as the White House’s national security policy. Trump should have no complaints about Pakistan’s civil-military imbalance, and he could relish high-level exchanges with the Pakistani military.
The Trump-Sharif schoomzefest is also a reminder that Trump is nothing if not unpredictable.
Many of us in Washington believed Trump would be in no hurry to talk to the prime minister of a country that he seems in no hurry to engage, much less court.
Instead, Trump happily took a call from him and showered him with the type of praise one would have expected him to reserve for Vladimir Putin.
President-Elect Trump has been remarkably hard to figure. He’s made pledges, taken them back, and made them again. He has issued threats, only to quietly walk them back. He constantly keeps us guessing.
There may be hope for US-Pakistan relations after all under the Trump administration. And for those analysts, like myself, that value the importance of the US-Pakistan relationship, then that would be a good thing.
But then again, we could be wrong to believe that Trump will take a sanguine position on US-Pakistan relations.
After all, as analysts, we do tend to be wrong sometimes — about Trump and so many other things too.
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(Michael Kugelman is the senior program associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. - Dawn)