The Corner

Politics & Policy

Strategy, the Middle East, and (Of Course) Trump

Last week I posted a column critical of Donald Trump’s proposal that the United States be a neutral broker in negotiating a deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

The point of that column was that the two-state solution is only possible if the groups that represent the Palestinians — Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) — abandon their stated goal of destroying the Jewish state. 

Negotiations cannot succeed if the parties do not have some congruency in their basic objectives. If you want to sell your house, but only on the condition that you get more than you paid, to a buyer whose goal is to pay less than you did, you’re not going to get a deal.  Either you or the buyer has to change your underlying objective for the agreement to happen.

Currently Hamas and the PA do not accept the continued existence of Israel as a Jewish state.  Israel, on the other hand, puts a rather high premium on not being destroyed. And even if it didn’t – even if a President Trump thought he could convince Israel to agree to its own destruction — that result would not advance America’s stated objective; the goal is to emerge with two states, not one.

So the object of the United States, if it wants a two state deal, must be to get the Palestinians to accept the idea of a viable Jewish state. And an American President who proclaims neutrality suggests to Hamas and the PA that the United States might force Israel to accept terms that threaten its existential security.

Which is why neutrality won’t produce a deal. Neutrality has been tried, by the way; it’s been the policy of the Obama Administration. 

In response to my column, one commentator quoted at length George Washington’s admonition  against “entangling alliances” with foreign countries. Another suggested that the United States should not become “embroiled” in these kinds of disputes. 

Those comments raise a broader issue – the question of why America has alliances at all, and why it is present and active in remote parts of the world — which I want to address in the context of history. 

President Washington’s policy of “no entangling alliances” – and alliances inevitably entangle; you cannot have allies without becoming involved in their concerns — was the right policy in the formative years of our Republic, and it was in fact the policy our leaders followed for over 150 years.  America played a secondary role, outside of the Western Hemisphere, until after World War II.

However, that policy was not a success in the first half of the 20th century. It helped lead to two World Wars and the death of over 60 million people. The two Wars caused the rise of a vast totalitarian menace, the bankruptcy of Western Europe, the Soviet conquest of Eastern Europe, and the advent of the nuclear age.  

Moreover, in the immediate post War era, it looked like another general war was on the horizon — one that would be fought with nuclear weapons.

So in the Truman/Eisenhower years, our leaders – the greatest generation since the Founding — decided they had to change course and become comprehensively involved in the world. It was not a decision they were eager to make; Truman in particular was anything but a visceral internationalist.

But they saw no better alternative to America actively managing global risk at an early stage, with the object of deterring both aggression against our vital national interests and escalating armed conflict that could spiral into another World War.

Over time three operating principles emerged as the basis for implementing the new strategy:

‐The United States began moving at the forefront of events, particularly in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, because you cannot manage risk passively.

‐The United States, for the first time in its history, created and sustained robust standing tools of power:  a military powerful enough to deter armed aggression, a network of intelligence agencies, aggressive diplomacy, foreign assistance (the Marshall Plan being the first example), and the mechanisms for economic sanctions.  These tools give our presidents options to manage risk using means that limit the danger of escalating conflict.  In the Cuban missile crisis, President Kennedy was able to blockade Cuba rather than bomb it – because he had a capable Navy.

‐The United States recruited allies, both to validate the strategy and to share the burden of executing it.  Sometimes those alliances were bi-lateral, such as our Treaty with Japan, sometimes they were regional, NATO being an example, sometimes they were global, such as the international non-proliferation regime that the United States sponsored to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.

These operating principles are not just elements of America’s global leadership. They define “American leadership” in the modern era.

So America seeks alliances not to benefit its allies but to advance a strategy designed to protect the United States. Of course the allies do believe they gain in the bargain. It’s like a trade in sports; both teams understand the trade involves a sacrifice but believe that in return they get something better, and each agrees to the trade to benefit itself.

America’s de facto alliance with Israel is part of a broader constellation of partnerships in the Middle East that, until recently, included Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, the Gulf States, and to varying degrees, Saudi Arabia. Working through those partners, the United States, again until recently, tried actively to preserve a regional equilibrium that contained Iran and protected American interests. 

Anyone wondering why the risks to the United States are growing everywhere – why America is being slapped around throughout the world, need only consider this. 

The Obama Administration has not only failed to follow the three operating principles, but has actively repudiated them. The president has “led from behind” rather than from the forefront of events, especially in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. He has allowed the tools of power to unravel.  He has disdained our traditional allies, including Israel, in favor of reaching out to adversaries such as Iran and Russia, countries which share neither our interests nor our values.  

The result is a world, which in Madeleine Albright’s words, is a “mess.” 

Mr. Obama believes that he is smarter than his advisers, and one suspects, than his predecessors as well. He set out to reinvent American foreign policy and has done so. He would have done better to heed Churchill’s admonition: “All wisdom is not new wisdom.”

From the beginning, the post War strategy has had critics on both the Right and Left. It still does. That is understandable, because the strategy requires sacrifice. 

America spends about 3 percent of its GDP on its armed forces, and should spend more, and additional if much smaller sums are required for the intelligence services, foreign assistance, and the other tools of power.   

To make the strategy work, the United States must be present, both militarily and in diplomatic force, in parts of the world many of us would as soon forget. 

Our allies have often been difficult and have sometimes been unsavory. 

Deterrence has sometimes failed, and America’s armed forces have had to fight — or at least its presidents have thought they had to fight — on many occasions.  To be sure, the wars have been small relative to the World Wars, but small wars can go on for a long time, and when they do, they divide our people, undermine our confidence, and cost a lot of money we would rather spend on something else.  And while there are fewer casualties in limited wars than great wars, the dead are still dead.

Yet my reluctant conclusion is that the strategy, and its accompanying principles, remain sound.  Perhaps someone has a better strategy, but Mr. Trump’s constant admonition to make better and tougher deals does not constitute one.  

There is no issue more important than this one in the presidential election – no issue more vital to the physical safety of the United States, and the peaceful continuation of its way of life.

The alternative we are experiencing under President Obama’s leadership is not better. It is a world where aggressors are bold in their ambitions and barbaric in their tactics, where attacks on America and its allies are increasing in intensity and frequency, and where the United States is growing ever closer to the one choice that Truman and Eisenhower wanted, above all else, to avoid:  the choice between surrendering America’s rights and freedom of action, or fighting an escalating conflict under unfavorable circumstances, with consequences that are too devastating for a civilized people to inflict, or endure.

Jim Talent, as a former U.S. senator from Missouri, chaired the Seapower Subcommittee. He is currently the chairman of the National Leadership Council at the Reagan Institute.


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