Politics

What's the deal with Trump's effusive praise of Pakistan?

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Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan addresses the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September 2016. 

 

Credit:

Mike Segar/Reuters 

It was supposed to be a simple courtesy call, from one world leader to another (almost) world leader. But when Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif got President-elect Donald Trump on the line Wednesday, Sharif heard things he rarely hears from the international community: praise.

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Pro forma courtesy calls are not usually made public, but the Pakistani government released details of the conversation, which immediately prompted some national chin-scratching. Pakistani writer and columnist Bina Shah read the transcript of the call word for word. 

"What I see actually is Mr. Trump going into businessman mode. I think Donald Trump is most comfortable dealing with people as a business tycoon. And he's probably been told, or is aware that, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is a prime minister, yes, but he's also an extremely successful businessman. And Mr. Sharif has been responsible in large part for overseeing a positive upturn in Pakistan's economy. I think Mr. Trump probably relates to Mr. Sharif businessman-to-businessman, and is probably thinking about the tremendous business opportunities that there could be potentially between our two countries. And if he did that he would actually be very shrewd, because business is Mr. Sharif's strength as well."

Pakistan is beset by problems, such as cross-border skirmishes with its nemesis, India; persistent accusations that Pakistan is a state sponsor of terrorism; and the Panama Papers' revelations that Sharif's family owns offshore companies. Against this backdrop, Shah says Pakistan's mainstream media is interpreting Trump's comment as a win for Sharif.

"This will be taken by [Sharif's] camp as proof that no, he's actually in quite a strong position and there's really nothing to worry about. It's business as usual."

American attitudes toward Pakistan are deeply colored by the fact that Osama bin Laden lived in Pakistan for five years, just a mile from the country's elite military academy, before he was killed in a US military raid in 2011. Donald Trump even tweeted about that.

"It's not like he's unaware of all these issues," says Shah, "but I think he wants to focus elsewhere. He wants to focus on economics rather than international relations."

Shah says the tone of Trump's comments in the call with Sharif suggest he's willing to throw out the usual foreign policy playbook when it comes to navigating the tense relationship between Pakistan and India. "I think Mr. Trump has expressed an interest in actually stepping in and possibily negotiating between our two countries, negotiating some kind of peace, negotiating some kind of detente. I think he's going to brush aside what he's been told about the foreign policy highs and lows between Pakistan and America. I think he's pretty determined he's going to make a success of it whether anyone likes it or not."

Shah was taken aback by the adjectives in Trump's comments, though. "Fantastic", "exceptional" and "terrific" are not words she's used to hearing about her country or its people. She was disappointed he didn't say "huge," but, all in all, was surprised at his tone.

"I was expecting a degree of coolness perhaps, or a degree of formality, but Mr. Trump surprises and exceeds all expectations. It looks like he's going for a very warm, personal, personable relationship with other world leaders."

Trump's comments are allowing some in Pakistan to bask, if just for a moment. "I think that he's basically given us a bit of a present, yes, and I think we'll definitely be using that to our advantage wherever we can."