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Trump and Pakistan’s Khan are a lot alike — but can they master the art of any deals?

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Ousted Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan, in a July 21, 2019, file photo.

When President Donald Trump meets Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan at the White House Monday, the real focus will be the personal chemistry between the two leaders.

U.S.-Pakistan relations are what they are: Not good. This meeting could make them better but not by much, and certainly not fast. That, nearly in its entirety, will depend on whether these two hit it off at a personal level — or not.

Of course, this would be true for any such meeting between any two leaders. But it is much more true in this case because of who these two men are. To state it most simply, it is not just comedian Trevor Noah but also many serious analysts who believe Imran Khan is “Pakistan’s Mr. Trump.”

Satire aside, and despite the fact that the politics and political context of the two are very different, there are striking similarities in their political and personal style. Both were public figures much before they entered public life — Donald Trump, the brash real estate tycoon; Imran Khan, the flamboyant cricket superstar. Each was an international celebrity well before becoming a political leader. Unabashed and unconstrained populists, each is a very real outsider to politics. Both attract rabid loyalty from their followers and visceral disdain from their distractors. Each has helped create and now presides over not just fractious but deeply divided societies. Like them or not, both are larger-than-life — much larger.

Charming when they want to be, both are notorious for having a thin skin, shooting from the hip, and not being in the habit of taking prisoners. Yet, they will change their opinion as quickly as they will make it when it suits their purpose. For both, political instinct flows from the metaphors of their personal biography. Donald Trump’s worldview derives from the centrality of the deal. For Imran Khan, everything can be explained as a game of cricket. And their politics, just like real estate and sports, is all about winning — always, and by any means.

Most importantly, in the context of their Monday meeting, both Donald Trump and Imran Khan have a deeply personalized approach to foreign affairs. It often seems that their foreign policy derives from their gut, and the impatience with conventional institutional wisdom is all too obvious. Each is out to prove that he is as different from all his predecessors as he possibly could be. Each is inclined to be bold, rather than careful. Each would rather be remembered as the leader who shook things up, rather than one who kept foreign policy stable.

The most striking manifestation of this foreign policy attitude has been Trump’s maverick summit diplomacy with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. For his part, Imran Khan’s surprise decision in February to immediately, unilaterally and unconditionally return the Indian Air Force pilot who had been shot down after entering and attacking Pakistani territory was equally bold and, yes, maverick.

Such similarities, of course, do not automatically translate into cordial relations. In fact, until now, it has mostly led to shrill, prickly exchanges. The most famous of these was a Twitter scuffle last November which began with President Trump accusing Pakistan of taking “our money and do[ing] nothing for us.” Prime Minister Khan immediately hit back with a four-tweet response to what he called “Mr. Trump’s tirade” that accused him of “making Pakistan a scapegoat for [U.S.] failures” by listing his country’s human and economic sacrifices in the War on Terror.

Things since then have changed. And so have the murmurs from both Trump and Khan. In the run-up to Monday’s summit, the U.S. finally designated a separatist militant group in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province as a terrorist organization, and Pakistan arrested a high-profile cleric who long has been on U.S. terrorist lists. All of this leading up to President Trump inviting Prime Minister Khan to meet, and possibly dine, at the White House. 

The agenda for discussion will be unsurprising. Prime Minister Khan’s advisers would want him to focus on the terrible condition of the Pakistan economy — but aid for Pakistan is unlikely to excite President Trump. For his part, the U.S. president’s advisers may push him to raise the issues of press freedom, minority rights, and state of democracy in Pakistan — but one can only wonder where that conversation may lead, given the Trump regime’s own legitimacy and record on these issues. 

These and many other issues will, of course, be raised. But the only one that really matters is Afghanistan, and Mr. Trump’s desire to ensure a smooth, uneventful U.S. troop withdrawal. The U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, has already “appreciated” Pakistan’s role in this process, and one expects similar sentiments coming out of the Trump-Khan meeting. However, one hopes Pakistan will refrain from bombast and the U.S. will desist from seeking promises of that which Pakistan is incapable of delivering. Nothing has hurt U.S.-Pakistan relations as much as false expectations of what each can possibly deliver to the other. These two straight-talking leaders can do no better than to simply recalibrate the mutual expectations on Afghanistan to more realistic levels.

And that is the point: The success, or failure, of this meeting will not come from what is on the agenda. It will come from who the meeting is between. If anything of the talk of “reset,” “reboot” and “reinvigoration” of U.S.-Pakistan relations is to come true, it will come true because the personal dynamics of Trump and Khan. 

U.S.-Pakistan relations have been stale and stuck for at least a decade now. So stale and so stuck that no amount of pushing on the perennial agenda — which itself is stale and stuck — is likely to move it. Maybe it is time to try something that is bold to the extent of being audacious. We know that Donald Trump and Imran Khan are both more than capable of the audacious. Whether they can be constructively audacious, together, will depend on whether and how much they connect and click personally.

Adil Najam is a professor of international relations and the founding dean of the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University. Follow him on Twitter @AdilNajam.

Tags Donald Trump Imran Khan Kim Jong Un Pakistan–United States relations political outsiders

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