ISLAMABAD: American voters are all set to decide who is a better choice — Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump — for the Oval Office. But for Pakistan, the choice is not between good or bad rather it is a matter of who will be the ‘lesser evil’.
Pakistan’s predicament is who should it back to win the US presidential election. This is the crux of what The Express Tribune has gathered in background and on-the-record interviews with Pakistani policymakers, analysts and government officials.
Unlike previous election campaigns, this time there has been little debate on US foreign policy issues during the hotly contested polls. Hence there is no clear insight into how the US foreign policy will unfold after the vote.
“In Hillary Clinton’s case, one can predict her policies,” said a senior Foreign Office official. If she wins, one can safely assume that she will follow the same path as her Democratic predecessors have been for the last 8 years when it comes to America’s policy vis-à-vis Pakistan and the region.
As Secretary of State, Hillary had visited the region a few times and therefore is well versed with the dynamics of this part of the region, including Pakistan. What worries the Pakistani policymakers the most is that the American tilt towards India would further grow if the Democrat candidate wins the race.
“That process will be further accelerated if she (Hillary) wins,” cautioned the official. Pakistan is not upset about the growing strategic partnership between Washington and New Delhi but Islamabad’s main concern is that it should not hurt its interests.
Surprisingly, unlike the popular belief, foreign policymakers in Islamabad think that given Hillary’s credentials, Trump may not be a bad choice for Pakistan to bet on for better understanding of its position on key areas, including the fight against terrorism and complex nature of its relations with India.
The assessment is interesting in view of the negative perception about Trump among Muslim countries and even the Pakistani-American community because of his radical views such as banning the entry of Muslims into the United States.
“We don’t need to take rhetoric seriously. Power has its own compulsions and dynamics,” said another official, who is closely monitoring the US election campaign.
“America is not a country where one person can have a solo show,” the official said. “Despite Trump’s rhetoric, there will be no fundamental change in US policies, particularly towards Pakistan.”
In fact, if Trump wins, this will provide Pakistan more room to manoeuvre to get its point of view heard unlike in Hillary’s case, the official pointed out.
The cautious optimism stemmed from the fact that since politics is a new territory for Trump this leaves Pakistan with more ‘ground to scratch’ in Washington.
The Republican candidate has said nothing or little on Pakistan during his campaign. The only reference he made to Pakistan was in response to a question asked by an Indian journalist that whether he would support Narendra Modi government’s action against Islamabad to stop cross-border terrorism.
But instead of taking the reporter’s bait, Trump had this to say: “Well, I would love to see Pakistan and India get along, because that’s a very, very hot tinderbox…. That would be a very great thing. I hope they can do it.” He also said he would be happy to ‘mediate’ between the two countries to defuse the situation.
But the problem for Pakistan is that Trump also has a tilt towards India like his rival candidate. Majority of the Indian-Americans as well as Indians back home are backing him to get elected in the hope that Trump would get tough on ‘extremism and terrorism’ and by its extension on Pakistan.
“Don’t expect that either of them will be friendly to Pakistan,” cautioned former ambassador Ali Sarwar Naqvi. “If I were to choose between Hillary and Trump, I would go for Hillary,” Naqvi said, explaining that the Democrat candidate will be more predictable unlike her Republican rival.
“But in the end it is a matter of who will be a lesser evil for Pakistan… and I think in this case Hillary is a better choice,” added Naqvi, who has served in different capacities in the US mission and observed at least three presidential elections in America.
Meanwhile, Pakistan is doing its ‘homework’ to prepare for the change in the Oval Office. Foreign Office officials contend that no matter how fragile Pakistan-US relations have been over the years, the fact remains that Islamabad’s importance has not diluted by any means.
“The US has to have good relations with Pakistan,” said a diplomat, currently posted in Washington.
The reason, the diplomat said, is that the US mission in Afghanistan has yet to complete. Secondly, Pakistan, a nuclear state of 200 million and located at a strategic location, cannot be ignored by any US administration.
“Our utility and importance remains depending how we play our cards,” the official said and went on to add, “We are not sitting idle. We are doing our homework to reach out to the new US administration.”
The change of office in the US comes at a time when Pakistan’s relations with the world’s sole superpower are far from ideal.
The strain in ties is primarily linked to differences between the two countries on how to fight terrorism and put an end to 15-year-long conflict in Afghanistan. Also the US in recent months has been increasingly concerned at Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, particularly its tactical nuclear weapons.
The situation was further aggravated by a US Congress decision to block funds to be provided to Pakistan for the procurement of F-16 fighter jets earlier this year.
On its part, Islamabad has its own list of grievances starting from Washington’s lack of acknowledgement of its sacrifices in the fight against terrorism as well as giving its arch-rival India an edge by entering a civilian nuclear deal with it.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 8th, 2016.