Pakistan Needs a Dose of Trump’s Madman Diplomacy

The next president’s erratic blustering might be just crazy enough to work in Islamabad.

A Pakistani resident reads a newspaper with coverage of Donald Trump's victory in the US presidential election, in Islamabad on November 10, 2016. / AFP / AAMIR QURESHI        (Photo credit should read AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images)
A Pakistani resident reads a newspaper with coverage of Donald Trump's victory in the US presidential election, in Islamabad on November 10, 2016. / AFP / AAMIR QURESHI (Photo credit should read AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images)

When does it help to have an erratic, unpredictable commander in chief? This is not a circumstance most foreign-policy professionals want to contemplate, but here we all are.

When it comes to steering the American ship of state through waters where trust-building is essential, such as working with allies and establishing new partnerships with leaders of other states, uncertainty about the president’s motives and core beliefs is likely to be debilitating, if not disastrous. A president prone to unschooled comments — for instance about NATO or the U.S. alliance with Japan — could quickly unravel the hard work of generations of his predecessors.

In dealing with foreign enemies, however, the jury is still out on the costs and benefits of unpredictability. Richard Nixon, for instance, famously argued that by appearing to be a madman he could compel North Vietnam to a peace deal that would otherwise prove impossible. Professor Thomas Schelling, whose work spawned some of our most important insights about nuclear deterrence, explained that in a high-stakes game such as Cold War diplomacy, appearing crazy enough to actually start a nuclear war (one that would almost inevitably reach the United States) was essential to persuading the other side not to take steps like placing missiles in Cuba or launching a conventional military offensive in Western Europe.

So madness, at least the credible appearance of it, can serve a strategic purpose.

Right now, Trump looks as if he may be heading down a similar path to Nixon. His presidency could well end in scandal, perhaps impeachment and resignation. But before that happens, a lot of foreign policy will be made, and it would be nice to know if his madman side could be turned to some constructive purpose.

If the upcoming administration is intent on applying the madman theory of international relations, Pakistan might be a good place to start. Washington has yet to find an effective way to gain Islamabad’s full cooperation in the fight against international terrorism. As officials within the Obama and Bush administrations quietly attest, and as many influential members of Congress openly lament, Pakistan is at best a sometimes-ally when it comes to counterterrorism.

At worst, Pakistan is an enemy, a state sponsor of terrorism in all but name, a host to anti-Afghan, anti-Indian jihadi militants with American blood on their hands. It is widely accepted in U.S. policy circles that Pakistan’s military and intelligence services prefer to maintain friendly ties with some terrorists for two reasons. First, they are useful proxies to destabilize Pakistan’s neighbors, and second, they would also be deadly adversaries if confronted head-on.

Washington has tried just about everything to alter Pakistan’s position. Incentives, in the form of tens of billions of dollars in U.S. military and civilian assistance, have won some concessions such as opening overland supply routes to U.S. forces in Afghanistan. More coercive measures, including behind-the-scenes threats, public rebukes, withholding assistance, and direct military strikes against Pakistan-based terrorists have also paid tactical dividends. But neither approach succeeded in changing Pakistan’s core strategic calculations.

Had Hilary Clinton won the presidency, we could have expected a downsized version of past policies. Her policy advisors had enough recent experience to be skeptical about the likelihood of changing for the better Pakistan’s terrorism calculations with the relatively limited range of carrots and sticks consistent with maintaining other U.S. interests in the region. By the same token, they would have been risk-averse enough to want to avoid a confrontation with Islamabad, at least early in the new term, so as to permit the White House to focus on more pressing matters.

That approach would have been consistent with the mood in Congress, which has already taken the lead in narrowing U.S.-Pakistan cooperation in the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), but not blowing up the relationship altogether. The latest NDAA wisely ties U.S. assistance for Pakistan’s military to a specific set of counterterrorism goals, including but not limited to the war in Afghanistan. All funding is provided in the form of “reimbursements” for actions that Pakistan must take, which means it can be withheld until Washington is satisfied that Islamabad has satisfied its end of the deal. A full $400 million of the authorized total $900 million can be reimbursed only if the U.S. secretary of defense certifies that Pakistan has taken action against a particularly deadly faction of the Afghan Taliban (the Haqqani network), which has long enjoyed the favor of Pakistan’s military and intelligence services.

The question is whether a madman administration might be able to do better. The only time that Pakistan has bent to Washington’s will in any significant way was immediately after 9/11, when fear of a vengeful Washington led then-President Pervez Musharraf to cooperate on a variety of counterterror operations that netted top al Qaeda leaders on Pakistan’s soil and to acquiesce, at least for several years, to an overthrow of Pakistan’s favored Taliban regime in Afghanistan. As Musharraf has claimed in his memoir, he and other top Pakistani generals feared that unless they bowed to the Bush administration’s demands, they would be “bombed back to the stone ages” or, more likely, would suffer the strategic consequences of seeing the United States align with India.

Perhaps Washington’s problem in Pakistan has been the inability to muster a sufficiently credible threat (or perhaps a sufficiently generous inducement) to overwhelm Pakistan’s other calculations about the costs and benefits of picking and choosing amid terror groups. Imagine how different U.S.-Pakistan relations would be if some combination of threats and inducements had ever forced Islamabad to clearly turn against all of the terrorists on its soil.

Trump’s apparent “irrationality” could conceivably make American threats to Pakistan far more effective. One of the only sure things we know about upcoming policy is that he means to get tough against “radical Islamic terrorists.” Trump’s obsession with terrorism and his top policy advisors with military experience in Afghanistan (National Security Advisor-designate Mike Flynn and his pick for secretary of defense, Gen. James Mattis) will, sooner or later, expose fundamental differences with Pakistan. Pakistan’s leaders are deluding themselves if they believe that the congratulatory phone call between Trump and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, in which Trump reportedly called Pakistan “a fantastic country, fantastic place of fantastic people,” actually bodes well for their relationship.

Trump may be uniquely well positioned to deliver a credible ultimatum to Pakistan: “Begin a full-scale, verifiable, and rapid offensive against all terrorist groups on Pakistani soil, or else.” Trump’s madman qualities would make the “or else” more frightening than just about anything a Clinton (or Obama) administration could have dreamed up, as his threat need not even be thoroughly specified in order to have the desired effect. Everything, from punitive military action to public shaming, sanctions, and an outright anti-Pakistani alliance with India, could be on the table, even if such actions would affect U.S. interests.

None of this is to suggest that Pakistan will simply cave to Washington’s demands. At the very least, Islamabad would likely test Trump’s will and the unity of his administration to see if doubts or differences could be exploited as a means to reduce or redirect American pressure. Pakistan’s leaders have also mastered the art of playing for time, stalling to manage international pressure sparked by crises with India without yielding significant ground. And although a handful of U.S. security demands have been rejected outright over the past 15 years, most have been frustrated by an infinite stream of Pakistani delays and excuses.

Beyond that, Pakistan would have the option to escalate or deflect American attention in positive or negative ways. On the positive side, for instance, Islamabad could arrest or kill some top terrorist leader to demonstrate the value of cooperation, while suggesting that coercive ultimatums are really unnecessary between close friends like Pakistan and the United States. On the negative side, a major surge in Pakistan-assisted Taliban violence within Afghanistan or a new crisis with India would force U.S. officials to appreciate just how much danger Pakistan poses as a regional spoiler. So in order to have any chance of success the Trump policy team would need to be ruthlessly unpredictable, but also steadfast and unified.

The trouble is that it is impossible for an American president to appear unhinged only to his enemies. Nixon, for instance, scared many Americans as much or more than he ever appears to have frightened the North Vietnamese. Moreover, his impulsiveness and aggression were not limited to foreign affairs, which ultimately spelled his undoing in the Watergate scandal.

Even more challenging, Trump would have to be able to play the madman without actually proving himself irresponsibly reckless. Whatever happens, Pakistan will remain a nuclear-armed state of 200 million people with increasingly close ties to China. Although there is little doubt that past and current U.S. policies with Pakistan have failed to deliver satisfaction on core U.S. concerns, a truly mad approach could produce far worse failures. This is why recent administrations have swallowed back the bile from Pakistan’s double-dealing. It is also a good reason for Trump’s advisors to think twice, even if their boss could be the most effective madman since Nixon.

Photo credit: AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images

Daniel Markey is a senior research professor of international relations and academic director of the global policy program at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. His website:

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