Politics & Policy

Trump’s Middle East Policies Are Not ‘Irreversible’

President Trump shakes hands with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in Washington, D.C., March 25, 2019. (Leah Millis/Reuters)
Don’t worry, Democrats, you can still reinstate Obama’s failed approach to the region.

Liberals’ basic narrative about the Trump administration is that the president is an idiot who has no idea what he is doing. That evergreen storyline enables Democrats to fantasize that the last 27 months have been merely a bad dream and can be quickly reversed once the rightful heirs to the White House oust the usurper.

But some in the foreign-policy establishment have not succumbed to this fantasy. As a recent Politico Magazine article by two longstanding purveyors of conventional wisdom about the Middle East — Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky — makes clear, some of Trump’s opponents understand that his policies are a serious attempt to implement genuine change.

Miller was a State Department functionary for 24 years, and has long advocated putting pressure on Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians. Sokolsky is another longtime State Department staffer who — like Miller, who now heads the Wilson Center — has retired to a comfortable perch in the think-tank world at the Carnegie Endowment. The pair are sounding the alarm that Trump’s successor won’t be able to reverse his approach to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and his withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.

They’re right about the seismic nature of these changes. But as much as Trump has altered the landscape on both issues, it is not beyond the power of his opponents to send us back to the situation he inherited from Barack Obama — at a disastrous cost to U.S. interests. That sets up the 2020 presidential election as one that will have enormous consequences in the Middle East.

Trump’s approach to the Israel–Palestinian conflict is indeed unprecedented. Dating back to Israel’s War of Independence, the United States had never recognized Israel’s sovereignty over any part of Jerusalem or the city’s status as the capital of the Jewish state, believing this was essential to preserving America’s status as an honest broker in the conflict as well as to force the Israelis to be more accommodating in negotiations.

The same assumptions have been the foundation of U.S. policy toward Israeli–Palestinian negotiations since the 1993 Oslo peace accords. The administrations that Miller and Sokolsky served pressured Israel to make concessions while turning a blind eye to the Palestinian Authority’s efforts to undermine peace.

Trump has turned all that on its head. Miller and Sokolsky think recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and adopting an aggressive stance toward the Palestinian Authority — focused on forcing it to stop funding terrorism — have ended any hope of diplomatic progress. These changes, as well as Trump’s more recent recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, have in their view aligned the U.S. with Israel and signaled to the Palestinians that their hopes for statehood are finished.

Miller and Sokolsky are probably right that the peace plan crafted by presidential adviser/son-in-law Jared Kushner isn’t going to succeed. But the policies they backed in the past not only failed miserably but also made peace less likely.

The Palestinians have always assumed that they didn’t need to make concessions because, sooner or later, the West would abandon Israel. That dangerous delusion was reinforced by President Obama’s belief that only by creating more “daylight” between the U.S. and Israel could peace be achieved. But the Palestinians never took advantage of Obama’s efforts to tilt the diplomatic playing field in their direction and his open antagonism for Benjamin Netanyahu. The P.A. continued to believe that the international community would eventually bring Israel to its knees and fearful of appearing weak in comparison with the Islamists of Hamas that ran Gaza as an independent state in all but name, so it never budged off of its maximal territorial demands, its funding for terrorists, or its reluctance to agree to language that would clarify that the conflict was concluded for all time.

Despite the predictions of the experts, Trump’s Jerusalem move and his more realistic approach to peace talks haven’t undermined U.S. influence in the region. To the contrary, Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt have urged the P.A. to negotiate rather than reject Kushner’s plan out of hand — though the P.A. has thus far defied this advice. By strengthening the U.S.–Israel relationship, Trump has also shown the Palestinians what they have to lose from further intransigence. If they refuse his offer, they will find themselves even more isolated.

Trump’s willingness to trash Obama’s Iran deal is another example of how he has substituted rational analysis for wishful thinking in the Middle East. Miller and Sokolsky describe Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s list of objectives with regard to Iran as “extreme” and “unnecessarily provocative.” But ending Iran’s support of terrorism, its quest for regional hegemony (advanced by foreign adventures such as its intervention in Syria and its support for rebels in Yemen), and its illegal missile production were the same goals Obama started out with before he abandoned a policy of tough sanctions in favor of appeasement. Moreover, the Iran deal left Tehran with its nuclear infrastructure intact and had an expiration date that would have allowed Iran to eventually construct a bomb anyway.

Contrary to Miller and Sokolsky, the goal of U.S. diplomacy with Iran never should have been to achieve more cordial relations with the Islamist regime; the goal must be to change Iran’s behavior. By reimposing sanctions and seeking to shut off Iran’s oil exports, Trump isn’t — despite Iran’s transparent bluffs — setting the stage for a military conflict. Instead, he has returned us to the point in 2013 when Obama abandoned the West’s economic leverage in exchange for only a temporary pause in Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapon. By enriching and empowering Iran, Obama made it more dangerous. Trump’s policies are already showing signs of success in weakening it.

If Iran and the Palestinians are still holding on to hope that these setbacks can be reversed, it is because they are being told by Western interlocutors, including former secretary of state John Kerry, that they should sit tight until 2021, when a Democratic successor to Trump will reinstate Obama’s policies.

This is possible, pace Miller and Sokolsky, though they are right that it won’t won’t be easy. Despite the contempt in which Miller and Sokolsky hold the president, they understand that measures like moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and sanctioning Iran are broadly popular. Any Democrat who seeks to reverse these moves will face opposition. Yet Trump’s measures have not blown up the region, very much leaving open the possibility of returning to a policy of more “daylight” or reinstating the Iran deal.

Both the Palestinians and the Iranians are likely to stand pat and try to hold out until the 2020 election. But should Trump be reelected, they will be forced to face reality and adjust their policies accordingly if they really want a state (in the case of the Palestinians) or to end their isolation (in the case of Iran).

On both issues, Trump’s contempt for experts such as Miller and Sokolsky was entirely justified, and his policy shifts have strengthened America’s position in the Middle East. But the permanence of those changes remains in the hands of the voters.

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