Politicos foresee little change in US policy

Published: November 9, 2016

ISLAMABAD: Panama leaks, newsleak, political wrangling and slanging matches — Pakistan’s mainstream political parties have been too taken up with domestic issues to worry about who will succeed President Barack Obama in the Oval Office. Small political groups are least concerned if American voters will elect Democrat Hillary Clinton as their first woman president, or hand power to the billionaire populist Donald Trump.

The apparent indifference of Pakistani politicians could partly be attributed to evolving geopolitical realignments in the region and dwindling largess of the United States the country used to depend on. Pakistan appears to have slid down the priority list of the American administration due to its budding diplomatic romance with India.

Nonetheless, second-tier leaders of mainstream parties weighed in on the US presidential vote when approached by The Express Tribune. Hillary is a known name in Pakistan, especially for the political elite, Trump, on the other hand, is a political novice, better known for his rhetoric during what is being dubbed ‘the dirtiest US presidential campaign of all time’.

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The government and the opposition, which seldom have convergence of views on domestic issues, agree that the situation in Afghanistan and its overriding effects on Pakistan and counterterrorism campaign would play a key role in shaping up the policy of whoever steps into Obama’s shoes. Needless to say, regional realignment would also be factored in.

PPP Senator Sherry Rehman, who has served as Pakistan’s Ambassador in Washington, says the manifestos of both Democrats and Republicans spell out somewhat different approaches vis-à-vis Pakistan. The Republicans promise more engagement with Pakistan while the Democrats tend to continue with the current policies.

“Unless there are changes made by the personalities of the President, both would have more or less the same policy towards South Asia,” Sherry says. She believes both parties would continue to view America’s bilateral relations with Pakistan only through the prism of Afghanistan. “Given the fragile security situation in Afghanistan, the United States is unlikely to scale down its engagement in the war-torn country in the foreseeable future.

Sherry doesn’t see growing Pakistan-China economic and defence cooperation as a major concern for US policymakers. However, she is convinced the US does not have a key role in domestic affairs of Pakistan unlike the past. “I think it is waning. The American role in our politics is lesser than what is on our minds. They have reduced levers. As aid goes down, so does your lever,” she says while referring to dwindling American financial assistance to Pakistan.

Former foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi shares Sherry’s views, though he personally favours Hillary who he has worked closely with during the previous government of Pakistan Peoples Party. “Her [Hillary’s] views are well known. She would re-adjust herself in accordance with ground realities which keep changing. More or less we know about her direction,” says Qureshi, who is now vice chairman of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf.

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Qureshi, who has interacted with Trump’s foreign policy adviser, believes the Republican hopeful’s policy vis-à-vis South Asia is in a ‘formative stage’. “But if Trump wins, he would get input from different institutions before formulating his policy for the region.”

Whoever wins the vote, the US would have to remain engaged with Pakistan, though this engagement would mainly be centred on AfPak, he says. “We have been telling them (Americans) all along that bilateral relations of Pakistan and the United States should be above Afghanistan.”

Qureshi also agrees with Sherry that Washington no longer has ‘decisive role’ in Pakistan’s domestic affairs. “Obviously, the US has interests in the region and they will be keenly watching the situation unfolding here. But I think sometimes we exaggerate their role,” he adds.

PML-Q Senator Mushahid Hussain Syed, who is also Chairman of the Senate Defence Committee, says the US is no longer the ‘sole superpower’, and in a multipolar world, where the West, including the US, are in decline and seeing a loss of global clout and influence, it matters less now as to who is going to occupy the White House.

For Pakistan’s political leadership, this means that “the road to Islamabad no longer goes via Washington”. Pakistani leaders should understand the American political system better, it’s not about individuals, it’s about interests, instead of a naive approach banking on personality, rather than policy.

“Hillary or Trump, whoever wins, his or her policies towards Pakistan will be based on promoting American interests,” he says. Pakistan matters to the US due to three key interests:

First, Pakistan is a pivotal player in the most important strategic region affecting US interests (China, Iran, India, Central Asia, Afghanistan and with Russia too, nearby), and this region has the two biggest American Embassies in the world [Kabul & Islamabad], plus the largest American military presence in the Muslim world.

Second, the biggest challenge for American foreign policy is Washington’s failed relations with the Muslim world, with the unraveling of the Middle East, issues of terrorism and extremism, and unresolved root causes of conflict and regional instability like Kashmir and Palestine. Pakistan is a key country in the Muslim world, and part of the solution to problems, particularly Afghanistan.

Third, Pakistan is amongst the nine nuclear states of the world, the only Muslim nuclear power, the principal ally of China which is viewed by Washington as its biggest competitor, if not rival, in Asia, where a new cold war is developing with the US trying to cobble together a coalition of countries, led by India, to contain China.

“Anybody will be better than Barack Obama for Pakistan. He was the only American president who had visited Pakistan as a student before becoming president; who had a personal connection with Pakistan [his mother had worked in Lahore]; and who had Pakistani friends during his college days, yet he cold-shouldered Pakistan in an unprecedented manner: visiting India twice, without bothering to even have stopover in Pakistan.”

PML-N’s Owais Ahmed Khan Leghari, who is also Chairman of the National Assembly Foreign Affairs Committee, believes there will be no change in US policy towards Pakistan whether it’s Trump or Hillary in the White House.

“Whoever sits in the Oval Office will be getting feedback from the same State Department, Pentagon and other American institutions. And they would shape up their policy accordingly.”

He recalls that during his election campaign Obama had made tall claims about the festering issues of Kashmir and Palestine but in the end he toed the policy that suited the American establishment.

“Pakistan should try to maintain a balance in its relations with the US while enhancing ties with China.”

Published in The Express Tribune, November 9th, 2016.

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