National Security & Defense

When Undiplomatic Talk Wasn’t Awful

Prime Minister Netanyahu with President Obama in 2011. (Reuters photo: Jim Young)
They didn’t complain when Obama did it.

There were two Trump-administration scandals du jour on Thursday. One concerned a joke the president made at the National Prayer Breakfast, in which he asked those present to pray for better ratings for his successor on the New Celebrity Apprentice television show. But the main reason for a daily dose of outrage against President Trump wasn’t generated by sympathy for Arnold Schwarzenegger or even dismay over a joke about prayer. Rather, it was the reaction to the reports about what appears to have been a stormy conversation with Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.

According to reports, Trump told Turnbull it was “the worst call by far” with a foreign leader. The stormy dispute was even alleged to have ended with Trump hanging up on one of America’s staunchest allies. Though both sides said that last part wasn’t true, there was little doubt it was a difficult conversation. One can well imagine Trump responding to Turnbull’s insistence that the U.S. stick to President Obama’s agreement to take in migrants that Australia didn’t want by saying (as he allegedly did) that the Aussies were trying to force them to take in the “next Boston bombers.”

The reaction from the foreign-policy establishment as well as most of the press was yet another round of demands that Trump grow up and frustration with his unwillingness to speak like a diplomat when dealing with foreign governments. But what especially annoyed the critics was the president’s lack of caution when it came to antagonizing an ally. The consequences of the argument with Turnbull might, we were assured by a chorus of sober television talking heads speaking more in sorrow than anger, influence Australians to turn more to China and against the U.S.

There is something to be said for not picking fights with friends in public, and it was probably unnecessary for the two leaders to engage in an open dispute when continued cooperation between the two nations on security issues is so much more important than the fate of 1,250 migrants currently held on some of Australia’s Pacific-island possessions. Trump should try remembering Theodore Roosevelt’s admonition that Americans should “speak softly while carrying a big stick” rather than mouthing off every time he doesn’t like something.

But those damning Trump for this latest evidence of his unsuitability for the presidency need to take a deep breath. That’s especially true for the chorus of press critics who were ardent fans of President Obama. Using undiplomatic language with allies is a bad thing, but it is not a principle that was upheld by Obama. None of those knocking Trump uttered a word of criticism when the 44th president and his aides were regularly insulting Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

None of that earned Mr. Obama a scolding from the foreign-policy wise men who now shake their heads at Trump’s bad behavior. From virtually the moment he took office, shortly after Obama was inaugurated in 2009, Netanyahu was subjected to a steady stream of abuse from the president both in private and in public. In Obama’s case, this wasn’t, as is assumed to be the case with Trump, a matter of losing his temper, but rather a concerted strategy that aimed to create more “daylight” between the U.S. and the Jewish state as part of an ultimately futile attempt to tempt the Palestinians to make peace. In pursuit of this goal, Obama goaded Netanyahu, ambushing him during a 2011 visit to Washington with a policy shift on the 1967 borders without prior notice and generally damned the policies of a man who won three consecutive parliamentary elections during this period. Nor was he the only one doing so, as subordinates also sought to get into the act. Hillary Clinton boasted of being the “designated yeller” at Netanyahu while she was secretary of state and anonymous White House aides leaked stories to the press in which they said the Israeli was “chickens**t.”

But leaving aside the hypocrisy of Trump’s liberal critics, that isn’t the only absurd aspect of this “scandal.” There is also the question of whether it is wrong for Trump to think he has the right to criticize or even renege on a deal done by a predecessor.

Trump probably isn’t alone in being surprised to hear about the illegal-immigrant swap Obama made with Turnbull. In exchange for taking in people (largely from the same countries regarding which Trump ordered a temporary pause on immigration) that Australia doesn’t want on its soil, the U.S. planned to ship down under illegal immigrants from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. How this is in America’s interest eludes me at first glance as, no doubt, it did Trump.

But a deal’s a deal and if Obama shook on it with the Aussies, it’s an ironclad principle that Trump must also honor it, right? Maybe, but that’s another principle Obama didn’t respect when it came to America’s Israeli ally.

Those damning Trump for his argument with the Australian PM need to take a deep breath.

President George W. Bush sent a letter to Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon in 2004 in which the U.S. promised to recognize Israel’s right to keep Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and its major settlement blocs on the border with the West Bank, as well as to the Israelis’ right to build there. In exchange for this, Sharon pulled every soldier, settler, and settlement out of Gaza, a decision that ultimately led to the creation of an Islamist terror state run by Hamas in the strip. But when Obama came into office, the Israelis were told that the Bush letter was null and void. Washington not only continuously attacked the Israelis about building in Jerusalem and the settlement blocs, but also made more of an issue of the Jewish presence in East Jerusalem than any of Obama’s predecessors had.

Seen in that light, outrage about Trump’s brusque attitude toward the Australians doesn’t seem so terrible, or at least not any worse than Obama’s undiplomatic conduct. There’s plenty wrong with Trump’s temperament but the high dudgeon about his bad behavior on the phone with foreign leaders is not only hypocritical, it’s a political loser. Americans aren’t likely to be outraged about a president who talks tough to friends or foes. Nor are they likely to be convinced that this is a big deal by those who had no problem with Obama’s insults of other allies.

– Jonathan S. Tobin is a contributor to National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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