Posts Tagged US policy

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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Efraim Karsh weighs in

Efraim Karsh offers the second response to my Mosaic Magazine essay on the prelude to Israel’s declaration of statehood. He succinctly retells the famous saga of the clash between President Truman and his formidable secretary of state, George Marshall, on whether to recognize the Jewish state. Truman emerges as the hero. But there’s an interesting sequel: Truman was also the first president to issue a stiff threat to Israel. Perhaps I’ll tell that story on another occasion. Read Karsh here.

David Ben-Gurion proclaims Israel's independenceSince Israel is primed to mark its 70th anniversary later this week, I’ll quickly tell one of the lesser-known stories about the declaration. The only moving picture camera at the May 14, 1948 ceremony at the Tel Aviv Museum (now Independence Hall) belonged to cinematographer Nathan Axelrod, who had a company that produced weekly newsreels. The Jewish Agency commissioned him at the last minute to film the great occasion.

But he only had four minutes of film on hand, to cover a ceremony which was expected to last half an hour. So Ben-Gurion arranged to give Axelrod hand signals and nods at the most important points in the proceedings, so Axelrod would know when to roll the camera. After the ceremony, the Jewish Agency press handlers cut up the original negative into four parts, and sent them out to various news agencies, so that less than a minute of the original survives. Later, the sound (recorded separately) was overlaid with this fragment, but if you watch it, you’ll see that there’s no synchronization between Ben-Gurion’s lips and his words.

(Avi Weissblei tells the story in his documentary film, A State Behind the Scenes, 2010.)

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A defense treaty between the US and Israel? Just say no

This is a response to an essay by Charles Freilich on U.S.-Israeli relations, published in Mosaic Magazine.

Charles Freilich has produced an astute and savvy analysis of the forces driving the U.S.-Israel relationship. It’s no surprise: all who know him regard him as one of the most thoughtful (and critical) students of Israeli decision-making, and his writing is a model of care and restraint.

But the reader encountering Freilich for the first time is bound to be confused, because his major operative conclusion seems at odds with his analysis. After explaining at length how it would best serve Israel to be less dependent on the United States, he then proposes that it strive to conclude a formal defense treaty with that same United States. Having noted that the stature of the United States in the Middle East “is at its nadir,” he urges Israel to “cement” its understandings with the waning superpower. What gives?

The explicit rationale offered by Freilich is that such a treaty would be valuable to Israel in deterring Iran. Indeed, he writes, it “might prove to be the only partially effective response to a nuclear Iran.” If that were the case, such a treaty would be an existential necessity. But I find it improbable that Freilich really believes this, because in many other op-eds and interviews he’s asserted the opposite: that Israel is perfectly capable of independently deterring Iran, were that country to cross the nuclear threshold. “Israel’s own deterrence should suffice,” he has written. If so, a defense treaty with the United States would add no value to Israeli deterrence of Iran, and so would be totally unnecessary.

Then there are threats that fall short of the nuclear. But Israel, as Freilich knows, is capable of dealing with these threats on its own, and when its estimate of such threats differs from Washington’s, it presently has the leeway to chart its own course of action. Even Freilich is reluctant to sacrifice this freedom, however infrequently Israel exercises it. That’s why he writes that “a treaty could be crafted that would explicitly not apply to cases of low- to medium-level threats and hostilities.”

So if a treaty isn’t necessary to deter high-level threats, and wouldn’t apply to medium- and low-level threats, just what would it add? I could profess to be puzzled, but I’m not. That’s because I’m an avid reader of everything Freilich writes, so I hope he won’t object if I put his Mosaic essay in a broader context.

Elsewhere Freilich has argued consistently that Israel is headed for perdition if it doesn’t separate from the Palestinians. To achieve that separation, he has written, “Israel will have to agree to withdraw from virtually all of the territory [of the West Bank], other than limited land swaps, to the establishment of a Palestinian state, and to divide Jerusalem.” Since there is no Palestinian partner to an agreement, Israel should work to “keep the two-state solution alive” by the transfer of additional territory to the Palestinians “and above all [by] a halt to settlements outside the ‘blocs’ and [by] provision of incentives to settlers to begin ‘coming home,’ even without a final settlement.” Eventually, Israel will have to be prepared “to move the 100,000 settlers who live outside the blocs.” Unless Israel does so, it will be headed down a one-way street to a binational state—if it hasn’t turned that corner already.

Why is this relevant to Freilich’s essay on U.S.-Israeli relations? Because it is his view that no agreement with the Palestinians will ever be reached without the United States. “Peace will be achieved, if at all, only with American assistance.” And the only way for the United States to achieve results is “to confront both sides and ‘crack heads.’” Freilich doesn’t say this in his Mosaic essay, but he’s said it elsewhere, and it explains his otherwise most puzzling proposal that Israel should seek a formal treaty with the United States.

The explanation is made explicit in this crucial passage:

A defense treaty might constitute the kind of security assurance and strategic “carrot” that could increase the willingness of a highly skeptical Israeli electorate to accept the risks, and dramatic concessions, necessary for peace with the Palestinians.

This sentence appears in an earlier iteration of Freilich’s Mosaic essay. It was titled “How Long Could Israel Survive Without America?” and was published last July in Newsweek. The sentence reveals that the real significance of the defense treaty isn’t its contribution to Israel’s security. Rather, the treaty fits into a future public-relations strategy for wooing the Israeli center into concessions, so that Israelis won’t entirely recoil when the Americans start “cracking heads.” It’s the carrot to accompany the stick, something a future Israeli prime minister can dangle as compensation when time is ripe for the next big push for “peace.”

This linkage of the defense treaty to the Palestinian issue is, however, completely missing from the Mosaic essay, and that has the effect of making Freilich’s entire proposal nonsensical. For if you think that now is the time for Israel to assert its independence vis-à-vis the United States, and if you argue, as Freilich does, that Israel should even give up U.S. military assistance, why would you argue for a defense treaty, which would only shackle Israel even more tightly to the United States? The seeming contradiction is resolved as soon as the missing rationale is restored. The treaty has nothing to do with Israel’s real security needs. It’s the psychological part of the compensation package a future Israeli government will need, when it prepares to divide Jerusalem and turn 100,000 settlers out of their homes so that they can “come home.”

Let’s give Israel’s electorate more credit: they know that a defense treaty wouldn’t add substantially to Israeli security. And Freilich anticipates this by making another argument: a treaty may not add to Israel’s security, but its absence could subtract from it. Why?

Because, he answers, U.S.-Israel relations may have peaked, and, absent a treaty, U.S. support for Israel might slip. Freilich emphasizes the erosion of support for Israel on the left end of the American political spectrum, before making this argument: “A defense treaty would symbolize and cement the ‘special relationship’ at a time when signs indicate it may not continue to be as deep as it is now.” By constituting “a binding commitment to Israel’s security,” a treaty would “ensure the ongoing availability of weapons, remove any residual limitations on the supply of arms and technologies, and assure Israel’s long-term qualitative military edge”—even if the relationship goes from “deep” to shallow.

Freilich says a treaty would “cement” the relationship; another common expression is “lock in.” Robert Danin, a former U.S. diplomat and negotiator, used just that phrase in a 2016 Foreign Affairs article: Israel and the United States could

drift apart as each undergoes demographic, political, and social changes. This may be happening already. . . . There is no guarantee that the strong pro-Israel consensus that has long been a bipartisan feature of U.S. politics will endure forever. Now is therefore the time for Israel to lock in the existing benefits of its relationship with Washington.

So we are supposed to believe that even if support for Israel in America were to erode away, the United States would continue to “pay out,” as if a defense treaty were a Treasury bill.

This is a charmingly naïve approach to American foreign policy. In the vast spectrum of promises of all kinds issued by the United States, the T-bill is the most reliable; the foreign treaty is the least. You can “lock in” an interest rate for 30 years and sleep soundly. Sign a treaty with the United States? Don’t close your eyes for a moment.

It’s not that the United States is less reliable than other nations. It’s that interests aren’t interest rates, and when they shift (or the perception of them shifts), no treaty in the world can hold up under the stress. If the assessment in Jerusalem is that the United States is going to drift away from Israel, the last thing Israelis should want is a defense treaty. Israel would end up imploring some future administration to keep commitments it would rather forget, and for which there’s dwindling public support.

Given Freilich’s own doubts about the stability of American politics and policy, it’s remarkable he continues to propose this. He has called Donald Trump “probably the most ill-suited president ever elected in American history, glaringly incompetent, a danger to the American people and to the world.” The American president, he has written, “is motivated by fleeting political and personal gain, rather than deep strategic thought.”

If one believes this, why would one continue to advocate a defense treaty with a polity whose electorate has shown itself capable of putting such a “dangerous” man at the helm? Perhaps the rules of American politics have changed? Does Israel want to be handcuffed to a polarized and weakened power? Don’t misunderstand me: it’s not I who’ve passed this judgment on the Trump administration. But if I had, I wouldn’t be pressing for a defense treaty with a state whose foreign policy has just fallen unexpectedly into “dangerous” hands and might easily do so again.

Freilich has argued that it would be a betrayal of Zionism were the Jews to become a minority in their own state. I think he’s right. But I also think it would be a betrayal of Zionism if the only sovereign Jewish state were to become a satrapy. I agree fully with Freilich: Israel’s independence has eroded, and it must work systematically to restore its freedom of maneuver. But a U.S.-Israel defense treaty would be precisely the wrong way to go about it.

• See the original response at Mosaic Magazine, right here.

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Israel’s first best friend

This month is the 70th anniversary of the UN General Assembly vote to partition Palestine, which legitimated the Jewish state. It’s going to be celebrated in a big way in New York, with a reenactment of the stirring vote. Vice-President Mike Pence will be there, to give the occasion an American bent. But do the United States and Truman deserve all the credit? Or should equal billing (or more) go to the Soviet Union and Joseph Stalin? I look at the evidence in November’s essay at Mosaic Magazine. Responses will follow all month.

Read here.

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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.