POSTSCRIPT / December 6, 2016 / Tuesday


Opinion Columnist

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Trump gave Du30 the ‘Sharif’ routine?

THE “SHARIF” in the head refers to Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who reaped praises from US President-elect Donald Trump in a recent call and got the latter to accept an invitation to visit Islamabad.

In his eight years in office, President Barack Obama has avoided Pakistan like a Zika hotbed. But in a PR offensive, Trump readily accepted Sharif’s invitation – saying he would “love to come to a fantastic country, fantastic place of fantastic people!”

(The American public is familiar with Trump’s extravagant use of such an adjective as “fantastic,” which in this case tends to accentuate the president-elect’s seeming eagerness to visit Pakistan and fix relations mired in misunderstanding.)

Islamabad’s transcript of the conversation had Trump telling Sharif he was “a terrific guy” who made him feel as though “I’m talking to a person I have known for long.” He described Pakistanis as “one of the most intelligent people.”

Trump’s office said only that Trump and Sharif “had a productive conversation about how the United States and Pakistan will have a strong working relationship in the future.” It neither confirmed nor denied the Pakistani account.

We picked up from the wires, mostly from Reuters, details of Trump’s chats with foreign leaders – including some problematic characters – being wooed by the incoming president to come closer to Washington.

Sharif was one of several foreign leaders who had talked with Trump. Among them was President Rodrigo Duterte, who was pleased by Trump’s praising his bloody drug campaign that has killed some 5,000 suspects since July.

Trump is reversing Obama’s stand against human rights violations associated with Duterte’s anti-drug campaign. The strategic importance of the Philippines in the US scheme of encircling China as it pivots to Asia-Pacific has not escaped Trump.

This approach could help improve relations with Manila, which has been gravitating toward Beijing as Duterte distances himself from the Obama administration.

Trump appeared ready to drop the issues of extrajudicial killings and human rights violations leveled against Duterte – if this would draw Duterte away from Beijing and give Washington an opening for better relations.

As then US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said in the late 1930s, “He may be a son-of-a-bitch, but he’s our son-of-a-bitch.” He was referring to Nicaraguan strongman Anastasio “Tacho” Somoza who despite his ruling with an iron hand enjoyed US support.

We are not saying that any Philippine leader past or present is an SOB, but only that the US is ready to compromise its values and revise policies if that will advance American interests.

Pattern seen in other Trump calls

REPORTING on the flurry of phone conversations of Trump with foreign leaders of various persuasions, Reuters said among other things:

“In the calls, Trump voiced admiration for one of the world’s most durable despots, the president of Kazakhstan, and said he hoped to visit a country, Pakistan, that President Obama has steered clear of during nearly eight years in office.

“Mr. Trump told British Prime Minister Theresa May, “If you travel to the US, you should let me know,” an offhand invitation that came only after he spoke to nine other leaders. He later compounded it by saying on Twitter that Britain should name the anti-immigrant leader Nigel Farage its ambassador to Washington, a startling break with diplomatic protocol.

“Mr. Trump’s unfiltered exchanges have drawn international attention since the election, most notably when he met Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan with only one other American in the room, his daughter Ivanka — dispensing with the usual practice of using State department talking points.

“The breezy tone of the readout (of the Sharif call) left diplomats in Washington slack-jawed, with some initially assuming it was a parody. In particular, they zeroed in on Mr. Trump’s offer to Mr. Sharif ‘to play any role you want me to play to address and find solutions to the country’s problems.’

“That was interpreted by some in India as an offer by the US to mediate Pakistan’s border dispute with India in Kashmir, something that the Pakistanis have long sought and that India has resisted.

“‘President Trump said Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif you have a very good reputation. You are a terrific guy. You are doing amazing work which is visible in every way,’ Sharif’s office said in a statement.

“Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to Washington, said his government’s decision to release a rough transcript of Mr. Trump’s remarks was a breach of protocol that demonstrated how easily Pakistani leaders misread signals from their US counterparts.

“At one level, Mr. Trump’s warm sentiments were surprising, given that during the campaign, he called for temporarily barring Muslims from entering the US to avoid importing would-be terrorists.

“Mr. Obama never visited Pakistan as president, even though he had a circle of Pakistani friends in college and spoke fondly of the country. The White House weighed a visit at various times but always decided against it, because of security concerns or because it would be perceived as rewarding Pakistani leaders for what many US officials said was their lack of help in fighting terrorism.

“Mr. Trump’s call with President Nursultan A. Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan raised similar questions.

“Mr. Nazarbayev has ruled his country with an iron hand since 1989, first as head of the Communist Party and later as president after Kazakhstan won its independence from the Soviet Union. In April 2015, he won a fifth term, winning 97.7 percent of the vote and raising suspicions of fraud.

“The Kazakh government, in its account of Mr. Trump’s conversation, said he had lavished praise on the president for his leadership of the country over the last 25 years. ‘D. Trump stressed that under the leadership of Nursultan Nazarbayev, our country over the years of independence had achieved fantastic success that can be called a ‘miracle,’ it said.”

(First published in the Philippine STAR of December 6, 2016)

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