By defying conventional wisdom on the Middle East and China, he reshaped both political parties
On Sept. 16 the editorial board of the New York Times did the impossible. It said something nice about President Trump. “The normalization of relations between Israel and two Arab states, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, is, on the face of it, a good and beneficial development,” the editors wrote. They even went so far as to say that the “Trump administration deserves credit for brokering it.” I had to read that sentence twice to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. Perhaps the world really is ending.
Or perhaps the Times cannot avoid the reality that the “Abraham Accords” between Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain are a historic achievement. It is the first advance toward peace in the Middle East since Israel signed a treaty with Jordan in 1994. By exposing the intransigence and corruption of the Palestinian authorities, and thereby removing them from the diplomatic equation, the Trump administration reestablished the “peace process” as a negotiation between states. And because the states in the region face a common foe—Iran—they have every incentive to band together. This is textbook realpolitik. The world is better off for it.
Just as remarkable as the deal itself is the bipartisan applause that greeted it in the United States. No one needs reminding that domestic politics is polarized and paranoid. Each party is convinced that the other one will extinguish democracy at the first opportunity. The past three presidencies have been jarringly discontinuous in style, temperament, and policy. But the same Democrats who sometimes appear eager to remove Donald Trump from office by any means necessary treated this foreign policy accomplishment with equanimity and acquiescence. “It is good to see others in the Middle East recognizing Israel and even welcoming it as a partner,” Biden said in a statement, adding that “a Biden-Harris administration will build on these steps.” Senator Chris Coons of Delaware told Jewish Insider that the agreement is “a very positive thing.”
The irony is that Trump’s opponents are ready to accept this “very positive thing” despite warning against and objecting to the policies that contributed to it. Through his personal relationship with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump reaffirmed that there is “no daylight” between the United States and Israel after an eight-year caesura. He defied conventional wisdom when he moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, when he withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear deal, when he cut off aid to the Palestinians, when he recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and when he ordered the lethal strike against Qassem Soleimani. But the catastrophes that the foreign policy establishment predicted would follow each of these measures never materialized. What emerged instead were the Abraham Accords and a growing alliance against Iran.
It is in the realm of foreign policy that Trump’s deviations from political norms have had the most positive and irreversible consequences. If he becomes president, Joe Biden may mistakenly try to revive the chances for Palestinian statehood by getting tough on the Israelis. He may attempt to resuscitate the moribund Iran deal. But it is highly doubtful that he will rescind the Abraham Accords, or withdraw recognition of Israel’s Golan sovereignty, or return the U.S. embassy to Tel Aviv. He won’t have the support for such decisions. And he won’t have any good reason to make them. Anyone who has read the news latelyunderstands that a strong and engaged Israel is good for security. Her enemies are our enemies.
By establishing inescapable facts on the ground over the ceaseless objections of critics, President Trump overrides the often meaningless verbiage that constitutes international diplomacy and ends up changing the very terms of the foreign policy conversation. Nowhere has this dynamic been clearer than in U.S. relations with China.
Beginning with his surprise call to Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen in December 2016 and continuing through his resumption of U.S. Navy freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea the following year, his tariffs on Chinese goods in 2018, his and his administration’s rhetorical barrage against China beginning in earnest in 2019, and culminating in his multiple actions against China this year, from limiting travel to canceling visas to forcing the sale of TikTok to tightening the vise on Huawei to selling an additional $7 billion in arms to Taiwan, Trump has reoriented America’s approach to the People’s Republic. No longer is China encouraged to be a “responsible stakeholder.” It is recognized as a great-power competitor.
Resistance to this proper understanding of China’s position in the international system remains strong. But it is unquestionably the case that both Republicans and Democrats are starting to see China more as a threat than a partner. And it is Donald Trump who is behind this clarification of vision. (Xi Jinping and the pandemic helped too.) Whatever a President Biden might do about China—and he seems far more interested in repairing our alliances in “Old Europe” than in tackling this paramount challenge of the 21st century—he would operate within the constraints Trump established and on the intellectual terrain Trump landscaped.ADVERTISING
There is no greater measure of presidential significance than a chief executive’s ability to transform not just his own but also the opposing party. When it comes to the Middle East and China, the Democrats are closer to Donald Trump today than they were at the outset of his term. That they find themselves in accordance with someone whom they despise is evidence of Trump’s ability to realign politics at home and abroad. This is no small feat.
Some might say it’s worthy of a prize.
Could it signal a new era in the Middle East?
President Trump last Thursday announced the first Middle Eastern treaty in 26 years between Israel and an Arab country. Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) will establish full diplomatic relations between the two countries. The heart of the agreement is the UAE recognition of Israeli sovereignty in exchange for Israel’s postponing its intention to annex the Israeli settlements on the West Bank. The treaty is being hailed as a major step toward peace in the Middle East.
Most of us do not know enough about the situation to understand the importance of this step. So, let’s take a quick look.
From President Trump’s first trip abroad which was to Saudi Arabia in 2017 and ever since, one of his first priorities in foreign policy has been to promote peace in the Middle East, which has cost the United States so much blood and treasure in the past several years. The underlying motivation for USA involvement since the 1920’s has been protection of America’s oil supply, the greatest source of which has been the Middle East, specifically (since the fall of Iran in 1978) Saudi Arabia.
One of the greatest imperatives, therefore, has been to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil. Luckily, the development of new technology for the venerable practice of fracking has made that goal achievable, and the encouragement of the new Administration has assisted the industry to realize America’s independence from importing foreign oil – a major milestone in Middle Eastern policy.
The full effect of this abundance, however, has been delayed by the lack of available refinery capacity, due to very onerous restrictions imposed by previous Congresses aimed at protecting the environment. Nevertheless, the USA now occupies a much stronger position than previously in its Middle Eastern negotiations.
The other major factor in Middle Eastern policy since 1948 has been the US relationship with Israel, particularly, the hostility with which Israel has been viewed by its Arab neighbors. Egypt, the largest Arab neighbor of Israel, made peace with Israel in 1978. That treaty was brokered by President Jimmy Carter after President Richard Nixon saved the Israelis from defeat in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. However, there have been few additional breakthroughs since then as the Palestinians grew more and more influential after being adopted by Iran.
This treaty has followed a succession of moves by the Trump Administration over the past three years, after President Obama had alienated the Sunni Muslim neighbors of Israel by his extraordinary treatment of Iran, the leader now of the Shia Muslim countries in the age old feud between the two branches of Islam. The open enmity of the Iranian leadership toward all the allies of the United States, especially against its Sunni neighbors, has been growing as Iran has committed more and more resources to its terrorist activities. Understandably, the Obama pact has therefore become ever more odious to our Sunni allies. So, in order to show them good faith, Trump repudiated that agreement (which was never ratified by the US Senate).
Next, he moved the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, implementing a promise made by several of his predecessors but never executed. He then formed the Sunni-Israeli Coalition which unofficially coordinates the anti-Iran activities of its members – Israel, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Oman. The establishment of this group is an astonishing development, given the fierce anti-Israeli posture of Arabs in the past. It also engages the leader of the Sunni opposition, Saudi Arabia, with Israel in a way which was inconceivable only a few years ago.
Now comes the treaty with the UAE. Because of its strategic position at the mouth of the Persian Gulf and the beginning of the Gulf of Oman as well as its vast oil reserves, the UAE is very influential as a trend-setter among the Sunni countries. It also has a very vulnerable coastline across the narrowest stretch of Persian Gulf water between its shores and coast of Iran.
Another consideration can be imputed to the government in that its economy – and its citizens – tend to be aggressive, prosperous and progressive. The increased familiarity with Israel is bound to be reflected in an increased exposure to the United States which bodes well for one of the historically most active trading centers in the Gulf, if not in the entire Arab world. This aspect of the new treaty is highlighted by the invitation to the principals to come to the White House for the official signing of the treaty in the next three weeks.
In summary, this treaty joins similar treaties between Israel and two other Arab countries, Egypt and Jordan (1984), and is a significant step towards the President’s goal of creating a more peaceful Middle East, where the USA’s interests can be trade and commerce instead of war and violence. However, this development and the trend of the Sunni nations to band together with the United States does have a military implication.
For one thing, it puts Iraq, a traditional enemy of Iran, but one where Iranian influence has been rapidly increasing, right in the crosshairs of the territorial distance between Iran’s eastern border with Iran, and its western border with Saudi Arabia. In spite of all the sacrifices Americans made to win freedom for the Iraqi people, the ascendency of Iran’s influence there makes its future posture toward the USA highly problematical.
Be that as it may, UAE’s joining the American side of this rivalry must be comforting to them. And this, of course, is due to the Trump revival of America’s military capabilities. Seeking protection from a country which could not defeat a ragtag force of Afghan rebels in 19 years would not be attractive without it. Only a double-edged initiative of diplomacy and might will win new friends.
Finally, there is China. The UAE is one of China’s major suppliers of energy. Accordingly, China has been taking a notable interest in the UAE — and all of the Gulf states. It is not beyond imagination that China has had its eye on major influence, if not control, of the Persian Gulf, with its friend Iran on one bank and the UAE on the other. China’s avowed goal of world domination would be well served if their permission, if not assistance, would be required for commerce to continue in the world’s most active energy industry depots. In that particular race, the treaty means America 1, China 0.
Well done, Mr. President, and congratulations also to your young phenomenon, Jared Kushner (who represented the President on these negotiations).