It started as a headline seemingly straight out of The Onion. Then it unleashed a torrent of jokes on late-night television and social media. And finally it exploded into a serious diplomatic rupturebetween the United States and one of its longtime allies.
In the latest only-in-Trumpland episode skating precariously along the line between farce and tragedy, the president of the United States on Wednesday attacked the prime minister of Denmark because she will not sell him Greenland — and found the very notion “absurd.”
Never mind that much of the rest of the world thought it sounded absurd as well. Amid a global laughing fit, Mr. Trump got his back up and lashed out, as he is wont to do, and called the prime minister “nasty,” one of his favorite insults, particularly employed against women who offend him, like
- Hillary Clinton and
- Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex.
All of which might be written off as just another odd moment in a presidency unlike any other. Except that attacking Denmark was not enough for the president. He decided to expand his target list to include NATO because, as he pointed out, Denmark is a member of the Atlantic alliance. And he chose to do this just two days before leaving Washington to travel to an international summit in France, which also happens to be a NATO member.
Mockery, of course, is not the reaction most presidents seek to inspire in foreign counterparts heading into important meetings. Most of the other leaders of the Group of 7 powers will no doubt save their eye-rolling for when he is not looking, but they have come to see mercurial behavior as the new norm by the president.
“This is yet another blow to American credibility under President Trump,” said Ivo H. Daalder, a former ambassador to NATO under President Barack Obama. “No leader, friend or foe, will take America seriously.”
“It’s not just the unthinkable notion of buying and selling territory as if we’re talking about a building or golf course,” he added. “It’s also the abrupt cancellation of a state visit as a result of the totally predictable rejection of that notion.”
To be sure, Greenland has increasingly absorbed American policymakers lately because of the opening of the Arctic with warming weather. American officials have talked about how to counter China, which has expressed interest in expanding ties with Greenland.
American leaders “remain concerned about some of the involvements of both the Chinese and the Russians in the Arctic,” Morgan Ortagus, the State Department spokeswoman, said on Wednesday.
The aborted Greenland venture comes at a time when Mr. Trump has seemed particularly erratic. In recent days, he proudly quoted a radio host declaring that Israeli Jews love him as if he were the “King of Israel” and “the second coming of God,” while Mr. Trump himself accused Jews who vote for Democrats of “great disloyalty.”
Speaking with reporters on the South Lawn on Wednesday, he suggested that God had tapped him to lead a trade war with China. “I am the chosen one,” he said, glancing heavenward. In the Oval Office on Tuesday, he exhibited his universal suspicion. “In my world, in this world, I think nobody can be trusted,” he said. At a rally last week, he ridiculed a man he thought was a protester for being fat, only to learn later that it was one of his supporters.
Some former Trump administration officials in recent days said they were increasingly worried about the president’s behavior, suggesting it stems from increasing pressure on Mr. Trump as the economy seems more worrisome and next year’s election approaches.
After casting off advisers who displeased him at a record rate in his first two and a half years in office, Mr. Trump now has fewer aides around him willing or able to challenge him, much less restrain his more impulsive instincts.
With a growing schedule of campaign rallies, he will be talking in public even more in the coming months, each time a chance to say something provocative that may distract from the messages his staff would prefer to emphasize.
Greenland, for one, was not on the staff’s list of priorities for the week. But while Mr. Trump has long derided nation-building, his flirtation with nation-buying turned out to be more serious than many originally thought. He has been talking privately about buying Greenland for more than a year and even detailed the National Security Council staff to study the idea.
At one point last year, according to a former official who heard him, he even joked in a meeting about trading Puerto Rico for Greenland — happy to rid himself of an American territory whose leadership he has feuded with repeatedly.
The notion of acquiring 836,300 square miles, or three times the size of Texas, appealed to the real estate developer in Mr. Trump, even if most of it is covered in ice. Aside from the potential military position and natural resources to gain, it fit his desire to do something big as president, in this case literally to increase the size of the country by more than 20 percent.
Supporters said Mr. Trump was onto something. “This idea isn’t as crazy as the headline makes it seem,” Representative Mike Gallagher, Republican of Wisconsin, said last week, calling it “a smart geopolitical move.”
“The United States has a compelling strategic interest in Greenland,” he continued, “and this should absolutely be on the table.”
Yet even Mr. Trump at one point seemed to see the absurdity of it, posting on Twitter a picture of a giant gold Trump Tower in a barely developed Greenland and writing, “I promise not to do this to Greenland!”
But when Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen made clear that Greenland was not for sale, Mr. Trump canceled a trip to Denmarkscheduled for September. Even though the president initially insisted that the trip was not about buying Greenland, in canceling it he said it actually was.
His original polite response to Ms. Frederiksen on Tuesday, when he expressed gratitude that she was “so direct” because it saved time and expense, turned darker on Wednesday amid the derision heaped on him.
Mr. Trump focused on Ms. Frederiksen’s comment that selling Greenland was an “absurd discussion,” as she put it. “It was nasty,” Mr. Trump told reporters as he left the White House for a trip to Kentucky. “I thought it was an inappropriate statement. All she had to do is say, ‘No, we wouldn’t be interested.’”
To Mr. Trump, it was not just an insult to him but to the nation as a whole. “She’s not talking to me. She’s talking to the United States of America,” he said. “You don’t talk to the United States that way, at least under me.”
That was not enough, however. He then took to Twitter to further assail Denmark, saying that as a NATO member it did not contribute enough to military spending. And then for good measure, he went after NATO as a whole for not spending enough on their militaries.
“We protect Europe and yet, only 8 of the 28 NATO countries are at the 2% mark,” he wrote, referring to the goal set by the alliance for members to spend 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense.
The dust-up could have wider ramifications, analysts said. “The president’s anger and his menacing tweet about Danish defense spending reignites Europeans’ worst fears about the U.S. commitment to NATO,” said Constanze Stelzenmüller, a German scholar at the Brookings Institution. “Presumably, the administration isn’t considering foreclosure. But is selling our territory now a proof of fealty for President Trump?”
Ms. Frederiksen opted not to fire back. “I’m not going to enter a war of words with anybody, nor with the American president,” she said on Danish television. She added that she found the Danish response to Mr. Trump’s planned visit and its cancellation “good and wise.”
It fell to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to do damage control, calling his Danish counterpart, Jeppe Kofod, to express “appreciation for Denmark’s cooperation as one of the United States’ allies,” according to Ms. Ortagus.
“Appreciate frank, friendly and constructive talk with @SecPompeo this evening, affirming strong US-DK bond,” Mr. Kofod wrote on Twitter. “US & Denmark are close friends and allies with long history of active engagement across globe.”
Engagement, but no sale.
Sure, there’s plenty of confusion, diplomatic malpractice and dysfunction in Trumpian foreign policy. But on two critical issues it is deadly functional: The administration is focused like a laser beam on
- irreversibly burning U.S. bridges to Iran and
- administering last rites to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
And if you look at the administration’s actual policies, it’s clear they aren’t just meant to overturn President Barack Obama’s actions, but also to create points of no return—so that successor administrations cannot revert to past approaches even if they want to. If the administration succeeds—and it’s well on its way to doing so—it will have fundamentally damaged U.S. national interests for years to come.
The administration has now done a complete about-face. Whatever Trump’s personal inclinations to prove he’s the world’s greatest negotiator on Iran, his hard-line advisers, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton, want to get rid of the mullahs who rule the Islamic Republic, not engage them. Pompeo and Bolton are now pulling out all the stops not only to provoke Iran into withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—and maybe into a fight as well—but to block a successor from engineering either a broader geopolitical pivot toward Iran or to engage in diplomacy to resolve outstanding U.S-Iranian differences. The administration’s Monday announcement that it will end all waivers of sanctions on countries still importing Iranian oil fits this pattern of relying on coercion and intimidation rather than diplomacy. As for Israel, whatever the president’s personal views on Israeli-Palestinian peace (and during the campaign they were more balanced than they are today), Jared Kushner and his team now seem hellbent on producing a “made in Israel” peace plan that will be dead before arrival and drive the final nail in the coffin of a peace process that is already on life support.
Last year, Pompeo laid out 12 extreme demands that Tehran would have to meet before the Trump administration would agree to re-engage with Iran. The demands would have required Iran to give up all its rights under the JCPOA and to stop pursuing what Tehran sees as its legitimate interests in the region—for example, helping to stabilize Iraq and supporting the government of Adil Abdul-Mahdi to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq. This diktat was swiftly and angrily rejected by the Iranian government.
No amount of economic or diplomatic pressure the U.S. brings to bear on Tehran will force it to knuckle under to these orders. But the administration’s fantastical demands have established a standard that will be used to judge any future nuclear agreement a Democratic, or different kind of Republican, administration might negotiate with Iran, which will almost certainly require both U.S. and Iranian compromises. That means a president who fails to meet these standards will be accused of appeasement, making compromise as well as domestic support for a new agreement far more difficult. The administration is not just killing the Iran nuclear deal; it’s stopping it from coming back to life.
The administration’s decision to designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a Foreign Terrorist Organization is also willfully and unnecessarily confrontational, and once done, given the hardcore, militant and enduring nature of the IRGC, it will be nearly impossible to undo. A successor administration, if it did try to undo the designation, would find itself vulnerable to the charges of enabling state-sponsored terrorism. The move will strengthen hard-liners in Iran who oppose accommodation with the U.S. and weaken those elements within the country which favor improved relations with America, who will now have no choice other than to remain silent or close ranks behind the IRGC, further diminishing opportunities for future engagement and diplomacy with Iran. Empowered hard-liners will crack down even more harshly on Iranians who want less political oppression, greater respect for human rights, and more political and civil liberties. All these results were no doubt intended by Pompeo and Bolton, and work together with the economic warfare the administration is waging against Iran, which is aimed at provoking internal unrest inside the country that could ultimately lead to a toppling of clerical rule. The imposition of the total embargo on Iranian oil exports, if successful, will inflict even more economic misery on the Iranian people, hardening the perception that the U.S. government is an enemy not only of the ruling regime but also of the Iranian people—an attitude that will make it harder to ratchet down hostility toward America in the future.
In what would deliver the final coup de grace to any normalization of future U.S.-Iranian relations, Pompeo and Bolton are doing everything they can to goad Iran into a military conflict with the U.S.There is a growing risk that U.S. forces and Iranian IRGC units and Iranian-backed militias could stumble their away into an unintended conflict, especially in Iraq or Syria but also in Yemen, where the administration’s unstinting support for the Saudi Arabia’s inhumane and ineffectual military campaign against the Iranian-backed Houthis risks further provoking Houthi missile attacks on the Kingdom, creating a pretext for the Trump administration to come to the Kingdom’s defense.
There are a number of steps the U.S. could take to mitigate the risks of an unintended conflict with Iran. But the administration has failed to create diplomatic or operational arrangements for communications and crisis management with Iran, suggesting that its goal is not to prevent such a conflict but to deliberately provoke one. And predictably, the IRGC designation has met with a hostile Iranian response: The Iranian Majlis (parliament) has declared every American soldier in the Middle East a terrorist. Thousands of U.S. military personnel are now wearing targets on their backs. Because they operate in close proximity to IRCG units and Iranian-backed militias in Syria and Iraq, the odds have increased dramatically that there will be some kind of confrontation with a high risk of escalation. In other words, U.S. actions have helped set the stage for a U.S.-Iranian conflict that could rule out reconciliation for many more years.
A less confrontational relationship with Iran isn’t this administration’s only casualty. It is also doing all it can to kill and bury the long-standing policy of seeking a two-state solution to achieve a conflict-ending settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.
Over the past year, the administration has waged a relentless campaign of economic and political pressure against the Palestinians—
- closing the PLO office in Washington,
- withdrawing U.S. assistance from the U.N. agency that supports Palestinian refugees and
- cutting aid to the Palestinian Authority.
While the details of the Kushner plan have been shrouded in secrecy for over a year, the way his team has operated and leaks to the media suggest a plan that gives priority to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s politics and needs—one that is reportedly heavy on economic issues and light on the core issues of
- refugees and
- Palestinian statehood.
Even if the words “two-state solution” were uttered, the administration’s view of the Palestinian state is clearly a far cry from the size and contiguity that any Palestinian leader could accept as part of a deal. In this way, the Trump administration’s policies don’t just roll back the very idea of a meaningful two-state solution and push the Palestinians further away from engaging seriously in negotiations leading to a settlement. They also, in aligning so closely with Netanyahu’s vision, make a deal much less likely in future.
For example, the administration’s gratuitous decision—untethered from any U.S. national interest—to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and open an embassy there
- inflicted serious damage on U.S. credibility as a mediator,
- marginalized the Palestinian Authority as a key U.S. interlocutor, and
- subordinated U.S. policy toward the Palestinians to U.S. policy toward Israel.
The administration’s treatment of Jerusalem has drawn a clear hierarchy: Israel’s needs are indisputable and sacred, Palestinian needs are negotiable and worldly. The prospects for a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem are now more remote than ever: With continuing Israeli efforts to formalize their control over all of Jerusalem and the presence of more than 300,000 Israelis living there, it’s hard to imagine there will be either political or territorial space for the establishment of a real Palestinian capital.
Once annexed, there will be no possibility of any solution that involves separating Israelis and Palestinians, thereby condemning them both to live in a one-state reality that is a prescription for unending conflict and violence. In the cruelest of ironies, the administration’s plan to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could extinguish any hope of a diplomatic solution to separate Israelis and Palestinians, and instead guarantee perpetual conflict.
So if the chances of the plan’s success are slim to none, especially in light of the recent Israeli election and the emergence of a very right-wing government, why launch it? The answer is obvious: We believe the administration has defined success in other ways. With zero chance of getting an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, the administration’s real end game is to fundamentally alter U.S. policy toward the conflict and to do everything possible to raise the odds that no successor can reverse the new ground rules. And there may be no time better than now. Listen to U.S. Ambassador David Friedman—a key influencer of the administration’s policy—at last month’s AIPAC conference: “Can we leave this to an administration that may not understand the need for Israel to maintain overriding security control of Judea and Samaria and a permanent defense position in the Jordan Valley?” he asked. “Can we run the risk that one day the government of Israel will lament, ‘Why didn’t we make more progress when U.S. foreign policy was in the hands of President Trump, Vice President Pence, Secretary Pompeo, Ambassador Bolton, Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt, and even David Friedman?’ How can we do that?”
The goal isn’t just to drive a stake through the peace process but to ensure that America’s traditional conception of a two-state solution won’t rise from the dead.
Why couldn’t a new administration truly committed to engaging Iran and pushing forward on a two-state solution simply return to traditional policies? We cannot rule this out; but this possibility faces very long odds, particularly if the Trump administration is in charge until 2024.
Even under normal circumstances with a committed and highly skilled administration, Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are excruciatingly difficult issues even to manage, let alone resolve. Success depends on leaders America can’t control who have conflicting interests and their own domestic constraints and, in the case of Iran, on bitterly suspicious adversaries; the issues are politically radioactive for all parties and perceived to be existential, too. And the longer these conflicts persist the more entrenched attitudes become and options for progress contract. Indeed, time is an enemy not an ally; and even under the best of circumstances, any number of deal breakers are always present. In its own inimitable way, the administration is well on its way to hanging “closed for the season” signs on both improving relations with Iran and on a two-state solution and, sadly, irreversibly damaging American credibility and national interests in the process.