Three days ago, election fever gripped the United States but Hurricane Sandy, blew all of that away. With both President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney postponing their election campaigns, the US has come to a standstill after suffering from one of the worst storms it has ever endured.
Regardless of this, the presidential election remains just five days away and will mainly be determined by the candidates’ domestic policies addressing a devastated economy, health care, job creation, energy and now, responding to climate change. Ironically, only one presidential debate, on October 22, was focused on foreign policy despite the growing turmoil that grips countries around the world, some seen as indispensable to the US, others viewed as allies, yet not a single deemed unnecessary. The next president will not only inherit a troublesome economy but will have to immediately delve into matters of international concern such as Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the looming crisis in the Middle East and then of course, the king of all beasts: Pakistan.
Though political views remain divided, President Obama illustrates a greater understanding of international affairs with enhanced experience of dealing with difficult partners. While the two candidates remain neck to neck at home, President Obama was a clear favourite to win the elections, in a recent international opinion poll conducted by the BBC World Service. President Obama is preferred to Romney in 20 of the 21 countries, including India, with France illustrating a 72 per cent approval rating. However, Pakistan was the only country that showed a lower rating (11 per cent) for President Obama and a 14 per cent approval rating for Governor Romney.
Pakistanis have suffered tremendously over the course of four years and have been agitated with incidents such as the shameful May 2 Abbottabad raid, the audacious Raymond Davis episode and the unforgivable Salala tragedy. While President Obama may be a disappointment, it must be considered that high expectations often fall flat, especially when constrained by a Congress dominated by Republicans, thus preventing bipartisanship on issues of foreign policy.
For a country embroiled in its longest and most expensive war in Afghanistan, foreign policy surprisingly features little in national debate. As the foreign policy presidential debate illustrated, Romney fails to offer a marked shift from the current strategy of drone strikes in Pakistan or the withdrawal timetable set for 2014 in Afghanistan. As Romney vows not to divorce Pakistan, he does provide a list of issues that could potentially transform it into a “failed state”, thus requiring a more assertive American hand. But Pakistan’s importance to international players will undoubtedly grow as Nato troops prepare for a responsible withdrawal and Afghanistan undergoes a litmus test for stability.
Romney will enter the office with very little exposure to global politics and even little knowledge of diplomacy. Leaning heavily towards conservative politics, he will undoubtedly adopt a policy of machoism and pedantic policies rather than meaningful engagement and prolonged diplomacy. Furthermore, Romney will surround himself with advisers and architects of the Iraq war, thus colouring his policies with those that have already proved to be a dismal failure.
But campaign rhetoric rarely transforms into policy recommendations or alters national strategies. While it may momentarily tilt the vote bank in a particular candidate’s favour, the US policy in the end will be determined by its national interests abroad, not some choice quotes, as is the case in any other country.
Nonetheless, Pakistan has little to worry about with the upcoming elections, which will have a modest impact here. However, policies fall flat if not complemented with correct diplomacy and that could be the stark difference between the two candidates. For now, there seems little to distinguish the two and Pakistan must not expect drastic changes, whether for good or for bad.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 1st, 2012.