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. 

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.