Posts Tagged Donald Trump

The Trump plan: history doesn’t run in reverse

On February 5, Gregg Roman of the Middle East Forum interviewed me on the Trump plan for Israel and the Palestinians. I’ve written about it elsewhere; in the interview, I offer some further reflections. (If you prefer, click here to listen.)

MEF: What’s your take on the Trump peace plan?

Kramer: Well, the first thing you have to do is separate analysis of the plan from the partisan political atmosphere that prevails the United States today, and just look at the plan on its merits and limitations. I understand that’s hard to do, but it’s really important because otherwise, you’re letting your political prejudice influence your analysis, and we want to neutralize that.

The plan has three key levels of analysis that you could do. There are the assumptions of the plan; there are the principles of the plan; and there are the details of the plan. It’s important not to reverse the order of discussion and get lost in the details before you look at the assumptions and the principles.

The core assumption is that the end of the conflict is important. [Otherwise,] why have a proposal? There have been administrations that didn’t make a proposal. The Obama administration basically dropped the whole issue at one point, and focused elsewhere. The idea that resolving the conflict could have a positive effect on the US position in the Middle East and on Israel’s position in the Middle East, is the basic underlying assumption of this initiative.

There’s a bit of linkage here—in other words, it’s important because it connects with the way the US is perceived in the region and the way Israel is perceived in the region.

So that’s one core assumption. The second core assumption is that you can’t reverse history, history only goes in one direction.

And that’s reflected in the principles. Now there are two key principles here. One is that there’s no way that you’re going to see the massive movement of peoples or parts of peoples as a consequence of, or as an element in, any solution. What does that mean? Anyone who thinks that 80,000, or 50,000, or 20,000 settlers can be removed from settlements under any political constellation which is imaginable in Israel today, is simply dreaming. It’s not going to happen.

And the second, that anyone who imagines that the West Bank or Gaza could absorb other huge numbers of Palestinian refugees—really, descendants of refugees—from other countries, is also dreaming.

So everyone stays in place in this plan. And I think that’s a core principle.

Another core principle—and you can’t get around it—is that the United States remains committed to a two-state solution. It has been since 1947. Even a man now described as Israel’s best friend ever still cannot put a plan on the table that doesn’t highlight two states.

The rest are details. We can discuss the details; [but] I think that they’re the most flexible part of the plan. In fact, Jared Kushner indicated they’re all open to negotiation. I’d say that even includes Jerusalem; it certainly includes the borders that are proposed on the conceptual map.

So, in a way, it’s pointless to get lost in the details at this point. It’s much more important to focus on the assumptions and the principles.

MEF: So let’s talk about the conditioning of the Palestinian people before we even have any principles associated with the peace deal. Because as far as they’re concerned, anything that this president or Benny Gantz or Benjamin Netanyahu offers to them, they’ll say no. A hundred years of Palestinian rejectionism.

And I’m sure you’re familiar with the campaign that the Middle East Forum ran in Israel last summer, associated with our Israel Victory Project: the idea that you can only make peace with defeated enemies, those who recognize a sense of defeat. What’s your take on that idea? Do you think that there’s a way for the Palestinians to give up on sumud, their “steadfastness,” the rejectionism, sarbanut as it’s called in Hebrew, or are we in for this for another hundred years?

Kramer: Look, let me first begin by making a minor correction to the way you described the plan. You called it a “peace plan.” It’s not a peace plan, it’s a partition plan. And a partition plan doesn’t have to be accepted—no partition was ever accepted by the Palestinians—in order to have historic effects. The 1947 plan by the United Nations, which was accepted by the Zionist movement, and was rejected by the Palestinians, still had transformative historic effects: creation of the State of Israel.

What characterizes a partition plan, is that basically it’s a proposal of a third party, looking from the outside, that has some authority, whether it be the British in 1937 when they proposed a partition plan, or the United Nations in 1947, or the United States today. So in a way, the importance of the plan transcends whether either of the parties accepts it.

And I don’t think that the Palestinians can accept it, or will accept it, given the state of their myth-making in their political vision. There are plenty of elements in the plan which Israel really can’t accept either, although Israel will accept the assumptions and the principles without accepting necessarily the details.

But that doesn’t mean that the plan won’t have an effect. The question is, even if the plan is never implemented (and it will never be implemented in all its details), what will be its historic effect?

What will be transformative here for the Palestinians is that they will begin to understand that history only runs in one direction, and the world is moving gradually to an accommodation with the facts of history. The Palestinians haven’t done that. And the reason they haven’t—part of the reason—isn’t just because they’re hidebound. It’s because the world has told them again and again that history can be reversed. Even the United States at various times has told them that history can be reversed. When people stop telling Palestinians that history can be reversed, that is the beginning of wisdom for the Palestinians. That’s the effect of the plan.

And that’s why the plan is so important. It begins with the United States, it will percolate to other states in the West and Arab states, and the Palestinians will begin to understand that their demand for the reversal of history has no support from anyone else.

MEF: You write, in an article that you wrote on the 102nd anniversary of the Balfour plan on October 31 of last year, regarding this issue, that the declaration “did clearly mark the beginning of the end of the Jewish problem as Weizmann and the Zionists understood it: a total absence of power that left the Jews as wanderers, vulnerable and weak.” What will it take to realize, on the Palestinian side, that there is a vacuum of power there, they have no legitimacy in the eyes of many Arab states (in the eyes of the Arab populations, maybe)? They have no ability to tell their leaders what to do unless they openly revolt and even if that happened, the IDF might come in and save those leaders who are providing sort of a Faustian bargain for security as it relates right now to, at least, the West Bank. And they’re suffering; their brand is crisis. How do we get the Palestinians to realize, like the Jews realized—I guess it was 1948, seventy-two years ago now—that the gig is up, you’ve lost, it’s time to develop your own polity not based on rejecting another. How do we get there?

Kramer: Well, you just did it yourself. You have to begin to tell them the truth. Now coming from Martin Kramer, or from you, it will have no effect on them whatsoever. But when they start to hear it from the very same quarters which historically and traditionally have been supportive of their demands, then that will begin to have an effect.

And that’s why, as I’ve argued elsewhere, what’s really important, [in order] for the Trump plan to have that historic effect, [is that it] be marketed to the Europeans, to the Russians, to the Arabs, so that while they may not endorse it—in fact, very few of them will openly endorse it and many will reject it—they will begin to echo some of the assumptions and principles that are in the plan, and go to the Palestinians and say: “Look, we understand why you reject the plan, it’s full of flaws, and so on and so on. But the basic assumptions and principles have some validity.” And when the Palestinians begin to hear that from friends—not from you and me but from their friends—then that will have an effect.

Much of the responsibility for the predicament of the Palestinians today lies not just on them but on their friends, or would-be friends, or supposed friends, who lied to them, misled them and promised they would deliver to them on fantasies, which were completely detached from reality.

I think Jared Kushner wouldn’t see the Trump plan as some unilateral American act. Even the Balfour Declaration was cleared with all Britain’s allies in advance, as I showed that in an earlier study. It was like a Security Council resolution in practice. The US has put this plan on the table. Now what it has to do is, not to get the endorsement of the full plan from anyone, but get other parties to echo elements of its assumptions and principles, and play those back to the Palestinians.

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How does Trump’s partition plan compare?

Left to right: Peel plan 1937, UN plan 1947, Trump plan 2020

It’s officially called the “Vision for Peace, Prosperity, and a Brighter Future.” But the scheme devised by Jared Kushner for his father-in-law President Donald Trump is basically a partition plan, replete with a map.

The President seems to think that his plan is unprecedented in its detail:

In the past, even the most well-intentioned plans were light on factual details and heavy on conceptual frameworks. By contrast, our plan is 80 pages and is the most detailed proposal ever put forward by far.

But past partition plans also were heavy on details and accompanying maps. The British partition plan of 1937, produced by a “royal commission” and popularly named after its otherwise-forgotten chairman, one Lord Peel, ran to 231 pages. Its follow up, the Palestine Partition Commission Report, had 310 pages and thirteen maps. The 1947 partition plan written by the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine had 83 pages (including “annexes, appendix and maps”). The two follow-ups of the Ad Hoc Committee for Palestine, with additional details, added more than a hundred pages.

That’s a long time ago, and one might be forgiven for categorizing Trump’s initiative among the more recent and conceptual “peace plans.” But it’s really the successor to the two preceding partition plans, both in its level of detail and, especially, in its maps.

The most striking consistency in these three partition plans is that the Zionist or Israeli side helped to fashion them so as to say “yes,” while the Palestinian Arabs refused to help prepare them, and so ended up saying “no.” Each rejected plan has been followed eventually by another, which has offered the Palestinians still less.

Comparing the 2020 map to 1947, and the 1947 map to 1937, makes that graphically clear. The Palestinians have appealed every verdict of history, and have lost every time. Odds are that this pattern will be repeated yet again, because the Palestinians remain too weak and divided, or resentful and myth-infected, to say “yes.”

Gradations of legitimacy

But while there’s consistency in the way these plans have been received, there are major differences in their authority. The most legitimate partition plan was that of 1947, because it was put together by an international commission, and it enjoyed the overt support of the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. On that basis, it garnered two-thirds support in the UN General Assembly, and became enshrined as Resolution 181.

While the resolution wasn’t more than a recommendation, it was strong enough to figure in Israel’s declaration of statehood. “By virtue of our natural and historic right,” the declaration reads, “and on the strength of the resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, [we] hereby proclaim the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.”

The earlier 1937 partition plan didn’t get nearly as far. The royal commission’s report was no more than a recommendation to the British government, which then convened another commission, which then declared partition impractical. The League of Nations, in whose name Britain ruled Palestine, never weighed in. For all the heft of the Peel plan, few remember it, although it was the first to establish partition as a possible solution.

At this moment, the Trump partition plan is closer to 1937 than 1947. True, it’s officially and overtly promoted by the president of the world’s leading power, which works in its favor. But it’s the brainchild of a handful of Americans, and it has no wider buy-in, except by Israel. A partition plan, to make history, doesn’t need Palestinian backing, as 1947 showed. But it can’t go very far if it doesn’t have what the 1947 plan had: some degree of international endorsement.

Russia, Europe, the Arab states — all of them could advance or retard the plan. Wooing them is especially important for Israel, since it seeks “recognition” for what it’s possessed for half a century. Borders gain legitimacy by mutual agreement (Israel’s borders with Egypt and Jordan) or international certification (its border with Lebanon). It isn’t enough for Trump to wave a scepter, or Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to evoke the Bible, however potent both instruments may be. The United States and Israel will have to canvas the world for support, just as they did in 1947.

Dancing in the streets?

Another difference is the degree of urgency: past plans emerged from crisis situations. In 1937, Palestine was in the midst of an Arab rebellion and violent turmoil. Jews fleeing Nazi persecution sought a refuge. In 1947, surviving Jewish refugees in Europe cried out for entry to Palestine. Partition was conceived as a kind of emergency surgery.

In 2020, in contrast, Israelis and Palestinians are living through the calmest decade-plus in their modern history. They have hammered out a status quo that’s far from perfect, but that still functions. The Trump partition plan emerges, instead, from the urgent political needs of Trump and Netanyahu. Since no one else is desperately awaiting such a plan, few will be keen to make sacrifices for its success.

That may be why the Trump plan is such a conservative one, grounded in realities as they are. Remember that the 1937 plan, forged in a different moral climate, proposed the involuntary “transfer” of more than 200,000 Palestinian Arabs out of the Jewish state. The 1947 plan left more than a third of the country’s Arabs within a Jewish state they opposed. (Most ended up fleeing it.) 1937 and 1947 gave rise to huge debates and fed deep passions all around.

Trump’s partition, by contrast, doesn’t imagine anyone moving, or (with few exceptions) living under a new kind of rule. That’s why its map is also so convoluted, compared to its predecessors. All partition maps have had strange anomalies, with awkward corridors and crossing points. The Trump map is full of enclaves, bypasses, and even a tunnel, precisely so that no one need relocate or submit to alien rule.

Because the plan so closely hews to the status quo, it won’t spark much jubilation among Israelis or much violence among Palestinians. But perhaps that’s its best hope. On the ground, there already exists a kind of two-state reality. Israel is a very strong polity, the Palestinian Authority a very weak one. But both have presidents, cabinets, security forces, anthems, and control of territory. Trump’s plan is focused on drawing final borders and building Palestinian state capacity. It may be a fool’s errand, but it’s not as radical as its predecessors.

History books or recycle bin?

So is it “historic,” a word regularly abused by politicians? Netanyahu: “I believe that down the decades — and perhaps down the centuries — we will remember January 28, 2020.” He even bordered on blasphemy when he compared the occasion to May 14, 1948, arguably the most significant date in Jewish history in the last two millennia.

At this point, it’s not even clear we’ll remember January 28 six months from now. A plan on paper doesn’t make history, even if it’s called “The Vision” and gets launched to strains of “Hail to the Chief.” The Trump partition plan isn’t “dead on arrival.” But for an American plan to stand even a chance of survival, the president must put his and America’s full weight behind it for years to come, perhaps even “down the decades.”

Does Trump’s America, does anyone’s America, have the attention span, grit, and finesse to see the “deal of the century” through? That’s the question of the century.

Cross-posted at the Times of Israel.

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Trump’s Mideast strategy: disaster or opportunity?

Over at Mosaic Magazine, Michael Doran published a long essay on the preferred American strategy in the Middle East, a piece that’s been popular among supporters of Donald Trump’s plan for a smaller U.S. footprint in the Middle East. Elliott Abrams offered the first response, and I’ve offered the second, below. (Original title: “Is the American Withdrawal from Syria a Disaster, or an Opportunity, or Something Else?”) Be sure to return to Mosaic Magazine for additional responses, and for Doran’s “last-word” rejoinder.

I have immense respect for the judgment of Michael Doran. So it’s significant that he thoroughly opposes Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria.

Wait a moment, you say. Doran doesn’t write that in “The Strategy Washington Is Pursuing in the Middle East Is the Only Strategy Worth Pursuing.” If anything, in his latest essay for Mosaic, he acquiesces in Trump’s Syria decision, and indeed regards it as “inescapable.”

To which I’d answer yes—but, before Trump announced his decision, Doran was all against it. And since he was just as persuasive then as he is now, what’s a sworn Doran fan like me supposed to conclude?

Consider, for example, Doran’s earlier Mosaic essay on U.S. strategy (co-authored with Peter Rough), dated September 2017. There the authors argued that Syria should be turned into a theater of direct U.S. confrontation with Iran. They urged that Trump seek “an authorization [from Congress] for the use of military force in Syria against Iran and its proxies.” They also proposed that the president “consider building and maintaining a forward operating base” even deeper in Syria along the middle Euphrates River Valley. And they called for “increasing troop levels in that country” (my emphasis). These moves would show that the United States “is every bit as intent on making its influence felt in the region as are the Iranians and the Russians.”

Nine months ago, following an earlier Trump announcement that the United States would leave Syria “very soon,” Doran wrote an op-ed for the New York Times. There, once again, he insisted that this would play into the hands of Iran. The United States had to show Iran that “America is resolute in its determination to pare down the Iranian nuclear program. Retreating from Syria,” he asserted, “will foster the opposite impression.”

To this rationale, he then added a Turkish one: “The moment American troops leave Syria,” he predicted, the Kurds would “inevitably turn to Moscow,” and Vladimir Putin would use this leverage to pull Turkey away from the West. (Russia’s purpose, he later said, was “to turn Turkey into a Trojan horse inside NATO.”) Policy recommendation: Trump “should reconsider his intention to withdraw.”

In light of these writings, Doran’s current essay, hailing Trump’s strategy as “the only one worth pursuing,” is a bit baffling. In his previous Mosaic essay, not only had he favored an alternative strategy; he thought Israel should be a partner to it, calling on the United States and Israel to “develop a joint military plan designed to contain and degrade Iranian forces in Syria.” Reading that earlier essay, I thought that was bold of him, since I couldn’t remember the United States and Israel ever having had a “joint military plan” to accomplish anything.

Last July, to an audience at the Tikvah Fund where I was present, Doran complained that his proposal for a confrontational U.S. policy in Syria wasn’t making any headway:

Both the Israelis and the Americans now notionally have a policy of driving the Iranians out [of Syria], but I go back to the gap between ways and means, between aspirations and tools. I don’t see the two sides putting together the tools to do it. I think they could if they put their mind to it, and I keep writing things suggesting that they should, but unfortunately nobody is listening to what I say.

In fact, plenty of people were listening, and he wasn’t alone. But if by “nobody” he meant Trump, he was right. Today, says Trump, we are at a point where “now” is the “time to come home.” Although the conditions and time frame of this withdrawal seem to change from one day to the next, it’s certain that America won’t be adding troops, bases, or plans. It will only be subtracting them.

What does Doran think this means for Israel? “If the Israelis have any hope of preventing Syria from becoming a permanent Iranian military base, they must act alone.” But, he reassures us, fear not: in any confrontation to come, Trump will have Israel’s back. He’ll keep the region safe by supporting U.S. allies to the hilt against America’s adversaries. And if Israel gets into a big scrape along the way, “Trump and his foreign-policy advisers, led by [National Security Adviser John] Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, will likely be eager to provide Israel with any weapons and intelligence it may lack to do the job.” Moreover, if Russia gets in Israel’s way, the United States will serve “as a deterrent to Russian military action.”

Indeed, there’s no doubt that in a pinch Trump would be more supportive of Israel than Barack Obama ever was. I’ll grant Doran that. Alas, however, there’s no guarantee that if and when the crisis comes, Trump will be in the White House, or Bolton and Pompeo won’t have become “distinguished fellows” in some Washington think tank. Someone other than Trump might be calling the shots in the Oval Office, and that someone won’t necessarily feel bound by Trump’s strategy, policy, or tweets (just as Trump hasn’t been bound by Obama’s). Indeed, the partisan packaging of this strategy, as presented by Pompeo in his recent speech in Cairo, may render it anathema to a successor administration.

So any assurances of what Trump is “likely” to do for Israel when push comes to shove are of no enduring value. The withdrawal from Syria is real and “now,” while any American “backing-to-the-hilt” is a vague promise with a current expiration date of January 20, 2021. This may be why a Who’s Who of Israel’s ill-wishers have had no problem welcoming Trump’s move. “Trump did the right thing,” wrote Harvard’s Stephen Walt. (He added: “In case any of you are wondering, I found it hard to type that sentence.”) Former CIA man Paul Pillar gave Trump a similar endorsement: “Even a broken clock is correct twice a day. And the decision about military withdrawal from Syria was the right one.” This has been echoed by the A-list of America’s most outspoken minimizers of the danger posed by Iran.

But let’s set aside the partisan posturing of Beltway pundits, and try to be objective. Is the Syria withdrawal a “disaster” for Israel? That was the word used by the Israeli columnist Caroline Glick in her own initial response. Trump, she tweeted, “is giving a huge victory to Iran, Russia, and Turkey and imperiling Israel, the Kurds, and Jordan.” (She later deleted the tweet.) Or is it an “opportunity”? A senior official in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office was quoted as saying that his boss viewed it as just that.

In and of itself, it’s neither, and much depends on what follows it. In my view, Syria probably isn’t going to turn into an Iranian military base against Israel, or an Iranian-controlled “land bridge.” Iran is out on a limb in Syria, and Israel, for its part, hasn’t needed help to do what it’s been doing systematically and successfully for the past two years—that is, walloping Iran every time it raises its head. The contest is far from over, but Iran hasn’t found a way to counter Israel’s overwhelming superiority in the Syrian theater. So withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria doesn’t “imperil” Israel.

What about the risk to America’s reputation? Only 2,000 American troops presently dominate a third of Syria. Rarely have so few controlled so much at so little cost, a testament to the supremacy of the American military machine. In walking off the field in the fourth quarter, and leaving behind vulnerable allies (the Kurds) and vengeful enemies (the remnants of Islamic State), the United States gives up a huge lead. It’s quitting while ahead, but it’s still quitting. And even if you think Syria isn’t worth a candle, a reputation for staying-power is worth a great deal. Osama bin Laden used to recite a litany of U.S. retreats as incentives to attack it.

That said, the inconstancy of America’s role in the Middle East is really no secret, either to its allies or to its enemies. The United States isn’t part of the Middle East, and doesn’t border it. That’s probably why it’s never had a perfectly clear view of its interests there, producing manic-depressive bouts of intervention and withdrawal. In a 30-year cycle, the United States might dispatch a half-million troops to one Middle Eastern desert and agonize about keeping 2,000 in another.

And this volatility correlates with the rhythms of American domestic polarization, causing policy to swing like a weather vane in a gale. A U.S. president from the blue team comes to Cairo and proclaims that “fear and anger . . . led us to act contrary to our traditions and ideals. We are taking concrete actions to change course.” Ten years later, a U.S. secretary of state, from the red team, comes to Cairo and declares in similar language, but to opposite effect, that “we’ve learned from our mistakes . . . [and] reversed our willful blindness.” All of these course changes and reversals are elements of pitched domestic battles. If you’re a savvy ally of the United States, you learn to ride out the cycles. But if you miss a cue, they can bring you down. (Think the shah of Iran and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.)

No one appreciates this more than Israel. It’s impossible to imagine a better ally of Israel than the United States, but one cannot be sure the United States will always do just the right thing at just the right time. Indeed, had Washington had its way, Israel might have missed its window for independence in 1948, its entry to the nuclear club in 1963, its chance for victory in 1967, and its blow to Iraq’s nuclear program in 1981. The list could be lengthened and brought up to the present.

The lesson is that there’s no substitute for Israel’s own ability to defend itself, and its independence to decide when and how to do so. Hence, as rival Washington “blobs” clash and leak over the U.S. posture in the Middle East, and the foreign-policy tribes shake their fists and point fingers, Israel is thinking hard about how best to fill the space left by a shrinking America. It is taking advantage of the consternation of America’s Arab allies in order to deepen regional ties. It is seeking understandings with Russia, over both Syria and Iran. And it’s working to identify every possible benefit of Trump’s own “back-our-friends” strategy, while he’s still in a position to make good.

This does not amount to kowtowing to all the wrong people, as some (liberal) critics of Israel would have it. It’s making the most of shifts in America’s posture, over which Israel has no say at all.

America may bounce back in the Middle East, or it may not. The weather vane may spin yet again. But even if it does, long experience also has taught the Jews not to presume the consistent and timely support of any other polity. That’s why there is a state of Israel, and why it can’t ever be too strong.

President Trump and Secretary of State Pompeo

Image: President Trump swearing in Secretary of State Pompeo, May 2, 2018, Department of State via Wikimedia.

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America: Great again in the Middle East?

Remarks delivered at a conference entitled “A New Era? Trump and the Middle East,” convened in memory of Barry Rubin at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya, Israel on March 5, 2017. Posted retrospectively at Sandbox.

This past year, on more than one occasion, I’ve asked myself what would Barry Rubin have to say about the election of Donald Trump. And it says something about Barry’s complexity as an observer of politics, that I can’t answer that question with any confidence.

Barry’s view of Barack Obama was no secret, of course, and he leveled a withering critique of Hillary Clinton during her tenure as secretary of state. But the same can be said of many people who didn’t board the Trump train. When Barry was first diagnosed with cancer, in mid-2012, he wrote these words:

I don’t expect to live to see utopia realized. But it would be nice to live long enough to see America and the world pass out from this current dreadful era, to see some restoration of sanity and reality, some kind of victory for goodness, some kind of restoration of intellectual standards, and a higher level of justice.

Would Barry have regarded the elevation of Donald Trump as a restoration of sanity and reality, a victory of goodness, a restoration of intellectual standards, and a higher level of justice? We just don’t know. But I think it’s safe to say this one thing: Barry wouldn’t have been surprised.

Barry of course lived in Israel, but even in the short time he spent each year in the United States, he made sure not to spend all of it in the Washington bubble. As a Civil War buff, Barry would go off annually to battle reenactments. There he would live for several days in tents with small contractors, office and construction workers, mechanics—and there he rediscovered the spirit of America that he so admired. There I’m certain he encountered many people who would vote later for Donald Trump.

I can’t say whether Barry would have agreed with them, or argued with them. But he would have heard them, understood them, and registered the changes that others missed completely. He did the same in analyzing the Middle East: he listened to people who told him things that contradicted conventional wisdom, and that’s why he never fell prey to conventional wisdom. He wasn’t just a contrarian by disposition. He based himself on evidence.

So what can we say now of the evidence about the Trump administration and the Middle East? Let me begin with two methodological caveats. The usual way to gauge the likely trajectory of a new administration is to parse the words of the president, and look closely at his appointments to high office. At no time in the modern history of the presidency have these two methods been less effective.

First, the words of the president. Usually when a president addresses an issue, even off the cuff, this is preceded by some sort of process. Presidents, and even candidates for president, understand that what they say always has ramifications, and so they learn to weigh their words. Certainly when Trump speaks prepared remarks, as he did the other evening before Congress, these have been very carefully weighed.

But there’s a vast corpus of statements and tweets by Trump that seem to reflect very little process. These aren’t just off the cuff; they’re from the hip. And it’s turned out to be a methodological error to parse them too closely. During the campaign, it was famously said of Trump that the press took him literally, but not seriously; his supporters took him seriously, but not literally. His supporters were right: it turns out that much of what he says is really only a first draft, almost certain to be revised. Banning all Muslims from entering the U.S., taking Iraq’s oil, jettisoning NATO, moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, passing on the two-state solution: all of these statements attracted huge headlines when they were made. But Trump or one of his appointees eventually walked all of them back, at least in part. He didn’t mean it, or he didn’t mean it that way, and so on. Pundits who raced to parse Trump’s initial statements had their chains yanked.

So we’re in a new era, where the president of the United States launches his trial balloons not to a few advisers in the West Wing but to millions of Twitter followers. The proper method, when Trump speaks, isn’t to treat his words like a considered statement of policy intent. No, it’s to register what Trump says, and then wait for the other shoes to drop. They always do.

And that’s why these statements give us very few pointers about what Trump intends to do in the Middle East. Is he really going to attempt to eradicate ISIS from the earth, as he said in his inaugural address? Is he really going to walk back the “bad deal” with Iran? Is he really going to give Israel lots of slack? Who knows?

The second method is to watch those appointments to high office. Traditionally, political appointments are read as indicators of a policy direction. The problem, in Trump’s case, is that because he ran as an insurgent even in his own party, he entered office without much of a national security brain trust. So far, he’s shown no inclination to appoint the fence-sitters or never-Trumpers in the Republican national security establishment. Instead he’s pulled in people who have backgrounds in business or military strategy. Fine people they may be, but they seem to have very little personal connection to the president, and have little or no record in foreign policy decision-making.

So it’s very hard, based on these appointments, to determine what the Middle East policy of this administration will be. The one man who did articulate some sort of vision, Michael Flynn, ended up serving the shortest term of any National Security Adviser in American history. I don’t doubt that Secretary of State Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Mattis, and National Security Adviser McMaster all have perspectives on policy. But I don’t see any point in ploughing through their past statements and records for clues about the future. They didn’t walk the long walk with Trump; others did. We know little to nothing about the nature of their interaction with Trump. It’s telling, too, that the White House has been blocking the appointments that Tillerson and Mattis would like to make at State and Defense. My bet is that we’ll see more personnel turnover in this administration than is usual. “You’re fired” may become a persistent refrain. Along with “I resign.”

That said, I’m going to venture a few speculations, based not on the usual method of reading tea leaves, but on a reading of Trump’s overarching theme about America. And there is a theme. I’m going to argue that in this view, what’s of paramount importance is that America be great again—but that trying to be great again in the Middle East cuts against that objective. In the Trumpian vision, the Middle East is a place where American treasure is forfeited for nothing, and at a huge opportunity cost.

And so anyone who thinks a Trump administration is going to come riding back into the Middle East to restore American primacy is going to be disappointed. Trump understands something Obama understood: the Middle East has exhausted the patience of Americans. What Southeast Asia was to an earlier generation, the Middle East is to this one. Obama took one step back; Trump is likely to take the other.

Let me begin with a quote from Trump’s address to Congress. As we’ll see, it’s not new, and it’s not a one-off statement that he’s walked back; it’s a recurring motif.

America has spent approximately $6 trillion dollars in the Middle East, all this while our infrastructure at home is crumbling. With this $6 trillion dollars we could have rebuilt our country— twice. And maybe even three times if we had people who had the ability to negotiate.

Here are some earlier variations on the theme. Trump, in remarks to state governors the week before last:

If you think about it, we’re less than nowhere. The Middle East is far worse than it was 16, 17 years ago. There’s not even a contest. So we’ve spent $6 trillion. We have a hornet’s nest. It’s a mess like you’ve never seen before. We’re nowhere…. We spend $6 trillion in the Middle East and we have potholes all over our highways and our roads.

Here he is, in remarks to airline executives at the beginning of February:

We’ve spent $6 trillion—think of it—as of about two months ago, $6 trillion in the Middle East. We’ve got nothing. We’ve got nothing. We never even kept just even a little tiny oil well. Not one little one. I said, keep the oil. But we’ve spent right now $6 trillion in the Middle East. We have nothing. And we have an obsolete plane system, we have obsolete airports, we have obsolete trains.

(By the way, the “keep the oil” part of this was walked back by General Mattis on a visit to Baghdad, where he reassured Iraqi leaders that Trump didn’t mean it.)

Now the fact-checkers contest the $6 trillion figure, but that’s beside the point. It signifies what the Middle East represents to Donald Trump: a sinkhole. Notice that he never talks about the lives lost. Trump is careful not to suggest that American lives were wasted. But the implicit message is that if those trillions of dollars were wasted, so too were those thousands of lives.

And if you take off partisan spectacles, this isn’t really that far from Obama’s take, as told to Jeffrey Goldberg in that Atlantic interview. You’ll remember that Obama told Goldberg that the United States can’t fix the Middle East, shouldn’t attempt to govern it, and will have to wait a generation until the region’s conflicts burn themselves out.

Ah, but you say, Trump will be more muscular. Let’s look at that more closely. There’s the promise of a military buildup, but this shouldn’t be misunderstood. The $50-billion plus addition to the Pentagon budget isn’t designed to position America to relaunch in the Middle East. It’s another stimulus program. Keeping the shipyards and aircraft manufacturers and others busy employs countless Americans. In 2001, the Pentagon’s budget was about $290 billion. Today it’s just over $600 billion, twice as large, and larger than the next seven countries combined. America’s capabilities haven’t dwindled. But another $50 billion is a lot of middle class jobs.

Yes, you can buy more hardware for that money, but that’s not going to make it more likely that the United States will put more boots on the ground in the Middle East. In any case, most of this hardware won’t be ready until Trump leaves the White House.

And then there’s the “eradication” of ISIS, promised in Trump’s inaugural address. In the campaign, Trump said he had an “extremely tough” plan, details of which he couldn’t reveal, but that would totally “change the playbook.” Trump claimed to know more about ISIS than the generals, and that he would “bomb the shit out of them.” In fact, Trump had no such plan, so after his inauguration he ordered the Pentagon to come up with one. Last week they presented a preliminary options paper, which includes various actions designed to crush ISIS in Syria within ten months.

Given Trump’s past (and rather shaky) claim that he opposed the Iraq war, one can be sure this isn’t going to be a grand plan of resetting the Middle East, post-ISIS. U.S. forces will assist in driving ISIS from western Mosul and Raqqa, basically by bombing and shelling the shit out of them. What the plan won’t include is any deeper commitment of resources to state-building in northern Syria. It’ll be left to the Russians, the Turks, the Kurds, and the Iranians to sort it all out, once the United States declares “mission accomplished.” ISIS might be out of the game, but the United States won’t be in it.

Then there’s the repeated refrain, that America is at war with “radical Islamic terrorism.” This is wording that Obama scrupulously avoided, but that Trump has trumpeted, as did his deposed adviser General Flynn. General McMaster was quoted as having described this terminology as unhelpful, but Trump repeated it the other day in his speech before Congress. So much for McMaster’s influence.

I actually think Trump is right to call this spade a spade. But all those people who are worried or excited that he’s going to launch a counter-jihad miss the point. The opposite is the case. The terminology won’t be used to justify all kinds of counter-jihadist operations around the globe. Trump knows perfectly well that the risk-reward calculation here is tricky, as his Yemen operation proved. There he fobbed off responsibility for the mistakes on “the generals,” but that’s not something the commander-in-chief can afford to do on a regular basis.

The purpose of the talk about “radical Islamic terrorism” is to justify defensive, not offensive action. It’s meant to justify the travel ban he attempted, and the new one he’s said is in the works. Obama managed to keep the homeland safe by a combination of offensive and defensive measures: drone attacks and a program for “countering extremism” and keeping Guantanamo open. Trump seems to be shifting the balance to defensive measures—and if this is to work alone, they have to be much more stringent. Whether the U.S. courts will allow this, we’ll have to see.

Finally, there is what Trump has called the “bad deal” with Iran. All of us wish we knew what that meant in practice. What I think it doesn’t mean is a dramatic escalation with Iran. The “bad deal” may be bad, but it doesn’t expire until Trump is out of office even in the maximum scenario of two terms. It’s not his problem unless he makes it his, and this he’s unlikely to do. Yes, stringent enforcement of the deal; yes, personal sanctions against assorted nasty Iranians, why not? But there’s no appetite for the costs of rolling back Iran in the Middle East. General Flynn came the closest to wanting to do this, and he’s gone.

So as you can see, I don’t think Donald Trump much cares if America becomes great again in the Middle East. Indeed, in his view, it was America’s over-involvement in the Middle East that contributed massively to its loss of greatness. America can’t get back those trillions wasted. But it’s not going to waste trillions more, or even the tens of billions it spends in the region on foreign aid. Obama began America’s retreat from the Middle East; Trump will continue it. The tune is different, but the lyrics are the same: the Middle East is bad for America’s health.

If you want a perfect statement of this view, I recommend to you the article in the new magazine, American Affairs, by Michael Anton, who’s now head of strategic communications at the National Security Council. I know Michael Anton; we worked together for some months on the foreign policy team of the Giuliani presidential campaign in 2008. He’s a formidable intellect. A critic has labelled him Trump’s Ben Rhodes, which I suppose is meant as a compliment. His article, written before he took his job, is entitled “America and the Liberal International Order.”

I just want to quote one passage. Anton points out that when the U.S. forged the liberal international order between 1945 and 1950,

it was never intended to encompass the globe. It was built to protect the interests of America and its non-Communist friends in Europe and Asia and keep Communism out of the Western Hemisphere. The Middle East was added later, in stages, as Anglo-French hegemony collapsed after Suez, as the original Western-friendly Arab kings fell, and as the West (and the United States especially) became net oil importers. The attempt, beginning in 1991-92, to extend that order over the whole world was a case of American eyes being much bigger than our stomachs (or teeth), a confusion of ideology and interests. In fact, however, such expansion was never necessary to core American interests—peace, prosperity, prestige.

Anton’s point is that American doesn’t need to be in the Middle East to defend its core interests. It’s past time to back out. A critic has chided Anton, saying that in any case, the United States still needs a policy toward the Middle East, something the administration seems to lack. And I’m sure that the United States will eventually have a policy toward the region. But so do Britain, Russia, France, and China. Pursuit of a policy isn’t the same as pursuit of primacy, and if Anton’s piece is anything to go by, America isn’t prepared to pay the ever-escalating price of primacy in the Middle East, if it can protect its minimal interests on the cheap.

I haven’t touched on Israel here, because I’m to be followed by Caroline Glick, and that’s her topic. I’d only say this. Yes, there may be opportunities here. The Trump administration isn’t going to trash America’s allies the way Obama did. But American politics are now an unmapped minefield, and the president himself could step on a mine and blow up. It’s not so far-fetched, especially around Russia, hacks, leaks, and tax returns. There’s a heightened instability in the American system, so Israel has to be on its guard and continue to maintain and build alliances across the board.

Even more significant, America is more divided than at any time since the Vietnam war, and that’s not good for us. It weakens the president’s ability to deliver on promises that we take literally. Just think back to Lyndon Johnson, Vietnam, and the 1967 war. Johnson, wrote Abba Eban later, was “paralyzed” by the polarization of America, unable or unwilling to keep promises made to Israel. Whatever one thinks of Donald Trump, he presides over a deeply polarized nation, a nation weary of keeping commitments to foreign nations, a people turning inwards to address its own serious, cumulative deficits. And whatever one thinks of Donald Trump, this is a president operating on the very edge of legitimacy, which he seems to know all too well, to judge from the fights he’s picked since his election.

A deeply divided America isn’t good for Israel, if a crisis emerges from somewhere or nowhere, and requires that the president act very presidential and take risks abroad. It’s never been wise to bet against the United States. I wouldn’t do it now. But for Israel, and some of our neighbors, I submit that now is the moment to hedge our bets. Or, to put it another way, Israel first.


The Jewish ban (Arab version)

British passportAs I followed the fierce debate over President Trump’s executive order, denounced by its opponents as a “Muslim ban,” my thoughts turned the Jewish ban that changed the career of my mentor, Bernard Lewis.

Lewis, the great historian of the Middle East who last May turned 100, travelled extensively in Arab countries in the late 1930s and 1940s. Born in Britain to British-born parents, he traversed French-ruled Syria for his doctoral work, and then served in the British army in Arab lands during the Second World War. In 1949, at the age of 33, he was already a highly-regarded academic authority on medieval Islam and a full professor at the University of London. The university gave him a year of study leave to travel in the Middle East. But the Arab reaction to the creation of Israel derailed his research plans. Lewis explained what happened in an article published in 2006:

Virtually all the Arab governments announced that they would not give visas to Jews of any nationality. This was not furtive—it was public, proclaimed on the visa forms and in the tourist literature. They made it quite clear that people of the Jewish religion, no matter what their citizenship, would not be given visas or be permitted to enter any independent Arab country. Again, not a word of protest from anywhere. One can imagine the outrage if Israel had announced that it would not give visas to Muslims, still more if the United States were to do so. As directed against Jews, this ban was seen as perfectly natural and normal. In some countries it continues to this day, although in practice most Arab countries have given it up.

Neither the United Nations nor the public protested any of this in any way, so it is hardly surprising that Arab governments concluded that they had license for this sort of action and worse.

According to Lewis (in his memoirs), some Jews fudged their religious identification on visa applications. (“One ingenious lady from New York City even described herself as a ‘Seventh Avenue Adventist.'”) Others simply lied.

But most of us, even the nonreligious, found it morally impossible to make such compromises for no better reason than the pursuit of an academic career. This considerably reduced the number of places to which one could go and in which one could work…. At that time, for Jewish scholars interested in the Middle East, only three countries were open—Turkey, Iran and Israel…. It was in these three countries therefore that I arranged to spend the academic year 1949-50.

In retrospect, it is fortunate that Lewis had to make the adjustment: he became the first Western historian admitted to the Ottoman archives in Istanbul, and his pioneering work in this area opened up a vast field of study. Yet his exclusion as a Jew clearly rankled. It was something he hadn’t experienced in Britain, yet Western governments now failed to stand up for their Jewish citizens by insisting that they be accorded equal treatment. And in the 1950s, it got worse: not only did Arab states not admit Jews, they drove their own Jews into exile. This may have been the animating force behind Lewis’s 1986 book Semites and Anti-Semites, one of the first to analyze the continuing mutations of antisemitism in the Arab world.

Today, Arab states don’t ban Jews as such. They do ban Israelis. In fact, six of the seven states featured in Trump’s executive order ban entry of Israeli passport-holders: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. (So, too, do another ten Muslim-majority states.) Those same six states also won’t admit anyone whose non-Israeli passport includes an Israeli visa. I’m not aware that the international community regards this as a particularly egregious affront to international norms. The governments of these countries regard every Israeli, whether Jewish or Arab, or any past visitor to Israel of any nationality, as a potential security threat. That’s not irrational, since some of these governments have a record of threatening Israel through incitement, sponsorship of terrorism, and dubious weapons projects.

Trump’s limited executive order doesn’t resemble the sweeping Jewish ban that changed the career of Bernard Lewis. It’s more in line with the Israel bans implemented in the very same countries he’s named. Trump regards holders of certain nationalities as potential security threats, and has excluded them on that basis. There’s plenty of room to debate the wisdom, efficacy, and even morality of the executive order. While the United States may not be as great an exception to the rule as it sometimes claims to be, it still isn’t Sudan or Yemen. And one would hope that the United States, which has invested untold billions (or is it trillions?) in intelligence collection and vetting since 9/11, would be capable of telling friend from foe, and victim from victimizer, within nations.

But the governments of states like Iran have no cause to profess outrage. No one has practiced blanket exclusion on the basis of nationality as unremittingly, decade after decade, as they have, and they aren’t likely to give it up any time soon. It would be unfortunate if this became the norm in the world. But it wouldn’t mark much of a change in the Middle East.

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