By Professor Alan Johnson
This article was originally published in CNN.
In late November, reeling from the shock of the US election, BICOM organized a conference in London with the Jewish News to discuss the likely impact of a Donald Trump presidency on Israel and the Middle East.
Our reeling has continued, after astonishing reports that Trump’s 36-year-old Orthodox Jewish son-in-law Jared Kushner – whose family foundation has, according to a Washington Post report, donated financially to the settlement project and has no relevant experience – has been tapped to be the President’s special envoy to the Middle East.
We thought there was no better person to tell the conference what might happen next than Dennis Ross, America’s point man for the peace process under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and more recently President Barack Obama’s special assistant.
When he rose to speak, the audience seemed to lean forward as one. This is what they heard: “I should start by saying I don’t have a clue!” The audience sat back as one, deflated. “The idea that anybody knows exactly what he’ll do in the Middle East as President reflects a kind of hubris, when what is called for is a kind of humility.”
Every American president since Harry S. Truman has faced at least one major conflict or crisis in the Middle East, Ross pointed out, but Trump faces the in-tray from hell: a war in Syria that has produced nearly half a million dead and millions of refugees; an Iraq being torn apart between ISIS and the Iranian-backed Shia militias; a proxy conflict in Yemen between the Saudis and the Iranians; a looming crisis in Egypt, a country of 93m people which just recently needed an International Monetary Fund loan because of shortages of rice, sugar and cooking oil; a frozen Israeli-Palestinian peace process; a Russia that has already proved it has the capacity and desire to project effective power and influence in the region; and, everywhere, as nations fall and jihadis rise, an Iran probing for weaknesses as it pursues its age-old dream of regional hegemony.
As our annual forecasting document points out, any clear-eyed observer has to admit that the Iranians have benefited from regional instability. The regime in Tehran, sometimes in alliance with Russia, is now the dominant player in four Arab capitals: Baghdad, Beirut, Damascus and Sanaa. Its proxy Hezbollah has further strengthened its power, possessing more missiles than all European NATO countries combined, according to a Israel’s ambassador the UN, Danny Dannon.
Julien Barnes-Dacey, a Middle East specialist at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Brussels, says that unless Trump can develop a coherent policy and lead effective coalitions, “the sense of drift and breakdown of regional order will be accentuated”.
Trump, the new “Jacksonian”
But can he? Does he even want to? The fact is we don’t know – the President-elect did not exactly campaign in poetry; but whatever it was, it certainly wasn’t prose. His strategic instincts were made clear enough though for us to anticipate that a Trump foreign policy will indeed be what Walter Russell Mead, editor of “The American Interest,” labels “Jacksonian” (or “hillbilly populist”), after Andrew Jackson, the 19th century American president.
The Jacksonian tradition, to which Mead thinks Trump the heir, is populist, nationalist, egalitarian (at least rhetorically) and individualistic. Libertarian in everyday life (the Jacksonians were at the forefront of the Whiskey Rebellion) when it comes to foreign policy, the currency of a Jacksonian is threats to the USA.
If threats do not exist, the Jacksonian says “live and let live” and is uninterested in interventions or nation-building overseas. But if threats do exist, the Jacksonian becomes a fiery patriot who “believes in victory at any and all costs,” says Mead.
Whisper it, but that means Trump may not often stray far from Obama’s foreign policy in practice, even as Obama’s soaring liberal internationalist rhetoric is dumped.
Israeli professor Jonathan Rynhold, author of “The Arab-Israel Conflict in American Political Culture,” agrees with Mead: “There was one thing in the campaign that Trump was very clear and consistent about,” Rynhold told BICOM’s London conference.
“That is his strategic mixture of being assertive, willing to use military force unilaterally, not being so interested in allies, questioning NATO, and giving the Russians a free hand in Ukraine and Syria. But also saying we’ll crush ISIS and crush Iran if it goes nuclear. It is a mixture of isolationism, economic protectionism, and assertiveness. And this has not been seen at the heart of American grand-strategy since 1941, before Pearl Harbor.”
If Mead and Rynhold are even half-correct, then what does this mean for the Middle East?
The end of nation-building and the two-state solution?
First, democracy promotion, the freedom agenda, nation-building and the human rights agenda – all that will be out. So too will be Obama’s too-clever-by-half strategy to “balance” Iran and the Sunnis, so expect an all-round toughening with an anti-US Tehran. Trump will then discover that the region is highly complex. A key moment will be when he realizes that there is a contradiction between taking a tough line on Iran and developing common ground with the Russians.
We will learn more at that point about how he intends to deal with the challenge posed by Iran and its use of Shia militias, and the emerging Syrian-Iranian-Russian-Hezbollah axis.
Second, no more pressuring Israel to move toward the two-state solution, a development that a centrist Israeli Prime Minister looking to fend off the wilder dreams of the annexationist right may discover is not an unalloyed good.
Benjamin Netanyahu has traditionally used US administrations, both Republican and Democrat, to offset pressure from the “Greater Israel” dreamers who sit to his right inside the coalition. That act will be difficult to pull off now.
Tumps’ top advisers – Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt – and his ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, have all made statements which have been seen as hostile toward the two-state solution, supportive of settlements and to an “undivided Jerusalem”.
The claim that Trump’s son-in-law is “a natural talent, the top” with “an innate ability to make deals” is risible.
Third, the old days of “he’s a bastard, but he’s our bastard” are back in: allies get looked after but must pay their way, while enemies will be treated as such.
And fourth, an accommodation with Vladimir Putin’s Russia to destroy the anti-American threat: the radical Islamists. This scares Europeans. As someone who has seen a Russian dissident poisoned on London streets, allegedly ordered by the Kremlin, and Typhoon fighter jets scrambled from an airbase in Scotland to intercept two Russian bombers approaching UK airspace, it scares me too. As does an awful lot about the unpredictability of the incoming Trump administration.
Professor Alan Johnson is BICOM Senior Research Fellow.