Maverick in the White House | Zahid Hussain


THE world holds its breath as Donald Trump is installed this week as the most controversial president in American history. Unprecedented uncertainty grips Washington as questions are raised if he can be fully trusted. His election has left the country far more polarised than before.

Hundreds and thousands of women are expected to march to Washington in protest a day after Trump’s inauguration as the 45th president of the United States. Not an auspicious beginning for a man occupying the world’s most powerful position. “What we’re looking at, all too obviously, is an American kakistocracy — rule by the worst,” writes Paul Krugman, a Nobel laureate. He goes on to say that “Mr Trump must not be treated with personal deference simply because of the position he has managed to seize”.

Surely, given an incoming president of questionable moral and political credentials, the US is heading towards uncharted waters. There are already talks about how to restrain him even before his installation. He is at loggerheads with his country’s security establishment and intelligence agencies that he compares with the Nazis.

Admiration for Russian president Vladimir Putin and the allegation that Moscow influenced the outcome of the presidential election have reinforced distrust of the new president. A recently leaked intelligence dossier, though unverified, alleges that Russia might have compromised Trump by filming him frolicking with sex workers in a Moscow hotel; this has made the new president a ‘security risk’ in the view of many US officials.

This suspicion was illustrated by a report published in Israeli newspapers where American officials have warned Israel ‘to be careful’ about sharing classified information with the Trump administration for fear that it could be given to Russia. That makes one wonder about the credibility of a leader carrying such a huge baggage of scepticism. Never before has an American president faced such scrutiny over his ability to deal with critical national security matters.

Trump’s odd views on the conduct of US foreign policy are a major cause of apprehension among world leaders. He is determined to build a wall on the border with Mexico to stop the entry of illegal immigrants and make Mexico pay for it too. But most alarming is his decision to relocate the American embassy to Jerusalem, thus deviating from Washington’s long-standing policy.

Trump’s odd views on the conduct of US foreign policy are a major cause of apprehension.
Breaking with the tradition of a president-elect not commenting on the policy of an incumbent administration, Trump has publicly criticised the Obama decision not to veto a resolution castigating the Israeli government for permitting new settlements on Palestinian land. His intended appointment of David Friedman, a pro-settlements lawyer, as his ambassador to Israel has provoked huge criticism even from US allies who see the move as a recipe for disaster that will fuel further violence in the Middle East.

In another controversial move, Trump declared that he would appoint Jared Kushner, his

son-in-law, to broker a Middle East peace deal. This indiscretion has generated intense anxiety not only in Palestine but also among America’s Western allies.

China is another country that is feeling the heat of Trump’s rogue foreign policy stance. As president-elect, one of Trump’s first telephone calls to world leaders was to the president of Taiwan. Successive US administrations — both Republican and Democrat — have been committed to a ‘one-China’ policy since 1979. Over the last four decades, relations between the two countries have strengthened despite periodic hiccups.

Trump’s blunt approach and gesture towards Taiwan threatens to reopen the issue of ‘two Chinas’. This has angered Beijing and it will certainly have larger regional and global implications. China has accused the president-elect of playing with fire and warned that Beijing will have no choice but to take off its gloves.

Trump’s public support for Brexit and his statements urging other European countries to follow the British example has evoked strong criticism from European countries. In an interview, he has called for the fragmentation of the European Union. His public criticism of Chancellor Angela Merkel for allowing more than one million immigrants into Germany has provoked a strong reaction from Bonn. Trump’s election has hugely encouraged the ultra-nationalist wave that is threatening European unity.

Another sensitive issue that Trump seeks to review is the nuclear deal with Iran. The agreement between Tehran and the P5+1 signed in 2015 has helped curtail Iran’s capability of developing nuclear weapons in return for the lifting of sanctions on the country. Surely Washington cannot unilaterally revoke the agreement, but it can create problems for Iran re-entering the international mainstream. There has not been any softening in Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric as he prepares to take over the presidency. This is bound to strengthen Islamist militant groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda.

There is, however, much ambiguity over Trump’s policy on Afghanistan where around 10,000 American soldiers are still engaged in fighting insurgents. The Afghan issue had not figured in interviews during or after the election campaign.

His nominees for the position of national security adviser, retired Gen Michael Flynn, and defence secretary, retired Gen James Mattis, however, had been involved in the Afghan war and have some understanding of the situation. But there is no indication yet whether the new administration would maintain the current level of residual troops or increase their numbers. There is also no clarity on a political solution to end the 15-year-long war in Afghanistan.

In all this, there is certainly no good news for Pakistan. Many observers believe that the pressure on Pakistan will increase if the situation in Afghanistan gets worse, notwithstanding Trump’s much-touted telephonic conversation with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

In his statement at the confirmation hearing, Gen Mattis sent a mixed message on relations with Pakistan. While vowing to build bridges, he also warned Pakistan to take action against militant groups operating from its soil.

The only one thing predictable about Trump is his unpredictability. With him at the helm, the US and the world are more unstable. It remains to be seen whether and how the Congress and the powerful US security establishment can rein him in.