ON Sept 11, 2001, I was in Washington DC when the Pentagon was attacked, while in New York, the Twin Towers were destroyed. This May, I found myself again in Washington DC, watching the White House being demolished from within by its latest tenant, President Donald Trump.
It was a tragic sight, not only for millions of rational Americans but for billions of citizens of the Free World whose freedom post-war America pledged to defend and then neglected to protect.
In many ways, President Trump sees himself as an elected Captain Han Solo, determined to fight Star Wars in every galaxy. He is confident of his supreme authority and invincible prowess. Doesn’t he have the force of the presidency behind him?
Only someone with limitless confidence would have dared dismiss the head of the FBI, James Comey. Was it because Comey had made an unprecedented disclosure about Hillary Clinton’s emails? Now even her Republican adversaries concede it cost her the presidency. Was it because Comey had been ‘grandstanding’ before a congressional intelligence committee, out-trumping even Trump? Was it because Comey refused to pledge personal loyalty to him during a private dinner for two in the White House? Or was it because Comey tunnelled too close to the sensitive vein of Trump’s relationship with Russia and refused to call off his hounds?
Trump sees himself as an elected Han Solo.
Trump’s brazenness knows no bounds. He has ‘threatened’ Comey against leaking tapes of their conversations which both know exist. Trump has derided North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s nuclear ambitions, and then tweeted that he would be ‘honoured’ to meet him. And only Trump would, the day after firing the head of FBI (which for generations had scared Americans with the warning: ‘Reds are under your beds’), receive in the sanctum of his Oval Office the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his ‘spymaster’ Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
The US press corps bristled at being excluded from the meeting. They were apoplectic after the Russian news agency TASS which had been permitted entry released photographs of the three beaming ‘conspirators’. “They tricked us,” one White House centurion complained. “That’s the problem with the Russians — they lie.” President Putin could not have asked for more from his Manchurian candidate.
Russians, though, are not the only masters of this sleight of hand. Pakistanis will remember a similar coup in January 2015, when our DG ISPR instantly uploaded a picture taken in 10 Downing Street when COAS Gen Raheel Sharif met an unsuspecting Prime Minister David Cameron.
In today’s world, optics is king. No one knows this better than the media-savvy Donald Trump. “He who reigns within himself,” Milton wrote, “and rules passions, desires, and fears is more than a king.” Trump’s “passions, desires and fears” are citizens in his realm, the TV remote his sceptre, the mobile phone his Twitter orb.
If the denizens of Washington’s ‘swamp’ had their way, President Trump would be facing impeachment proceedings already. That is still a possibility. The ongoing investigation by the FBI — graded internally as ‘significant’ — into Trump’s subterranean dealings with the Russians (which his lawyers admit spread over a decade) may well become Trump’s Watergate. Though, like Nixon, Trump will not concede without a fight. He will battle to his last pawn. Trump has no intention of being told: ‘You are fired!’
Meanwhile, Trump could do worse than consult Nawaz Sharif on the art of survival. Nawaz Sharif, now into the home stretch of his third tenure as prime minister, has positioned himself so that his re-election in 2018 seems inevitable. By taking a team of senior ministers and all four chief ministers with him to China to laud President Xi Jinping’s One Belt, One Road initiative, he has assured himself of continuing Chinese support. His entertainment at Murree of Jindal (an emissary from his Indian counterpart Modi), could not have been done without a discreet nod from the army brass. Does this mean that the two men in Pakistan’s civil-military kayak have at last realised that they must paddle in the same direction?
It is a pity that neither Nawaz Sharif nor army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa was in New York to attend the Lahore Literary Festival, held at the Asia Society on May 6. There, on one concentrated Saturday, the LLF organisers compressed Pakistan’s culture, literary, musical and artistic talent into one glorious cornucopia, from which flowed mellifluous sessions on ‘Fake News’, on Lahore’s heritage, on ‘Populism and the Global Rise of Strongmen’, ‘Satire and Escapism in Fiction and Beyond’, and a memorable finale titled ‘Notes from a Raga’ featuring two US-based, musically obsessed cancer specialists.
That unforgettable day ended with a qawwali, proving that Pakistanis can not only sing in harmony but work in unison. The LLF NY revealed a glimpse, a tantalising vision of that grace and peace which diminishes Star Wars into petty squabbles.
The writer is an art historian.
Published in Dawn, May 18th, 2017