As usual, the president makes his predecessors look better.
Suppose you’re the type of smart conservative reluctantly inclined to give Donald Trump a pass for his boorish behavior and ideological heresies because you like the way the economy is going and appreciate the tough tone of his foreign policy, especially when it comes to Islamic fundamentalism.
These last few weeks haven’t exactly validated your faith in the man, have they?
.. The president has abruptly undermined Israel’s security following a phone call with an Islamist strongman in Turkey. So much for the idea, common on the right, that this is the most pro-Israel administration ever.
.. Contrary to the invidious myth that neoconservatives always put Israel first, the reasons for staying in Syria have everything to do with core U.S. interests. Among them: Keeping ISIS beaten, keeping faith with the Kurds, maintaining leverage in Syria and preventing Russia and Iran from consolidating their grip on the Levant.
.. Powers that maintain a reputation as reliable allies and formidable foes tend to enhance their power. Powers that behave as Trump’s America has squander it.
.. But leave that aside and consider the Trump presidency from a purely Israeli standpoint. Are Israelis better off now that the U.S. Embassy is in Jerusalem? Not materially. The move was mostly a matter of symbolism, albeit of an overdue and useful sort. Are Israelis safer from Iran now that the U.S. is no longer in the Iran deal and sanctions are back in force? Only marginally. Sanctions are a tool of strategy, not a strategy unto themselves.
.. What Israel most needs from the U.S. today is what it needed at its birth in 1948: an America committed to defending the liberal-international order against totalitarian enemies, as opposed to one that conducts a purely transactional foreign policy based on the needs of the moment or the whims of a president.
.. From that, everything follows. It means that the U.S. should not
- sell out small nations — whether it was Israel in 1973 or Kuwait in 1990 — for the sake of currying favor with larger ones. It means we should
- resist interloping foreign aggressors, whether it was the
- Soviets in Egypt in the 1960s, or the
- Russians and Iranians in Syria in this decade. It means we should
- oppose militant religious fundamentalism, whether it is
- Wahhabis in Riyadh or Khomeinists in Tehran or Muslim Brothers in Cairo and Ankara. It means we should
- human rights,
- civil liberties, and
- democratic institutions, in that order.
Trump has stood all of this on its head.
He shows no interest in pushing Russia out of Syria. He has neither articulated nor pursued any coherent strategy for pushing Iran out of Syria. He has all but invited Turkey to interfere in Syria. He has done nothing to prevent Iran from continuing to arm Hezbollah. He shows no regard for the Kurds. His fatuous response to Saudi Arabia’s murder of Jamal Khashoggi is that we’re getting a lot of money from the Saudis.
He speaks with no authority on subjects like press freedom or religious liberty because he assails both at home. His still-secret peace plan for Israel and the Palestinians will have the rare effect of uniting Israelis and Palestinians in their rejection of it
.. If you think the gravest immediate threat to Israel is jihadist Hezbollah backed by fundamentalist Iran backed by cynical Russia, the answer is no.
.. If you think the gravest middle-term threat is the continued Islamization of Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan — gradually transforming the country into a technologically competent Sunni version of Iran — the answer is no.
.. If you think that another grave threat to Israel is the inability to preserve at least a vision of a future Palestinian state — one that pursues good governance and peace with its neighbors while rejecting kleptocracy and terrorism — the answer is no.
And if you think that the ultimate long-term threat to Israel is the resurgence of isolationism in the U.S. and a return to the geopolitics of every nation for itself, the answer is more emphatically no.
On his recent visit to Europe, he managed to convey once again his contempt for America’s European allies, and to demonstrate that he places more value on his own personal comfort than on the sacrifices that US soldiers have made in the past.
The trip itself cost millions of taxpayer dollars, yet Trump chose to skip a key ceremony honoring US war dead at Aisne-Marne American Cemetery because it was raining.
The White House offered up a cloud of unconvincing excuses for Trump’s absence, but other world leaders were not deterred by the fear of a few raindrops, and neither were past presidents Obama, Clinton, Bush, or Kennedy back in their day.
By choosing to stay warm and dry in his hotel room while other world leaders acknowledged the heroism of those who fought and died for freedom, Trump gave the concept of “American exceptionalism” a whole new meaning.And then, instead of marching with other European leaders at a ceremony marking the end of World War I, Trump showed up lateand on his own and even missed the symbolic tolling of a bell marking the 100th anniversary of the 1918 armistice. (In a revealing coincidence, Vladimir Putin arrived on his own as well.)
Overall, Trump seemed intent on proving that while the obligations of being president might force him to go on such trips, he doesn’t have to behave himself while he’s there.
For example, Trump is correct to accuse China of engaging in a variety of predatory trade practices and of failing to live up to its World Trade Organization commitments. He is also right when he complains that Europe has neglected its own defenses and relies too much on American protection (though he still seems to think NATO is a club with membership dues)..
He is hardly the first US official to criticize European defense preparations but being unoriginal doesn’t make it wrong.
Trump is also correct in his belief that Europe, Russia, and the United States would be better off if the divisions that presently divide them could be bridged or at least alleviated.
It would be better for Europe if Russia withdrew from Ukraine, stopped trying to intimidate the Baltic states, and stopped murdering former spies in foreign countries.
It would be good for Russia if Western sanctions were lifted and it no longer had to worry about open-ended NATO expansion. And it would be good for the United States if Russia could be pulled away from its increasingly close partnership with China.
For that matter, Trump wasn’t wrong to see North Korea’s nuclear and long-range missile programs as a serious problem that called for creative diplomacy.
The real problem is that Trump has no idea what to do about any of these issues, and he seems incapable of formulating a coherent approach to any of them. To the extent that he does have an actual policy toward Europe, for example, it is the exact opposite of what the United States ought to be doing.
Trump’s broad approach to Europe is one of “divide and rule.” He’s called the European Union a “foe” of the United States, and he has backed a number of the political forces that are now roiling the Continent and threatening the EU’s long-term future.
He endorsed Brexit, expressed his support for Marine Le Pen in France, and thinks well of illiberal leaders like Viktor Orban of Hungary and Andrzej Duda of Poland. Why? Because he thinks dividing Europe into contending national states will allow the larger and more powerful United States to bargain with each European state separately rather than face all of them together, and thus secure better deals for itself.
This approach might be termed “Neanderthal realism.” Playing “divide and rule” is a good idea when dealing with real enemies, but it makes no sense to sow division among countries with whom one has generally friendly relations and close economic ties, and when their collective support might be needed in other contexts.
This approach also runs counter to Trump’s stated desire to reduce US security commitments to Europe and to get Europe to take on greater responsibility for its own defense.
If you really want the United States to get out of the business of protecting Europe, you should also want Europe to be tranquil, capable, prosperous, and united after the United States withdraws. Why? So that Washington doesn’t have to worry about developments there and can focus its attention on other regions, such as Asia.
A Europe roiled by xenophobia, resurgent hyper-nationalism, and persistent internal wrangling wouldn’t be to America’s advantage; it would be just another problem area we’d have to keep an eye on.
Nor would a divided Europe be of much use in addressing any of the other problems on America’s foreign-policy agenda.
Why doesn’t Trump see this? Possibly because he is reflexively relying on the same tactics that brought him to the White House.Trump’s political success in the United States rests on his skill at picking fights with others, whether it is rival Republican candidates, Democrats of all kinds, the media, Meryl Streep, Jeff Bezos, or anybody else who disagrees with him. His goal is either to bully opponents into backing down or use the spat to rev up his base.It has worked tolerably well here in the United States, because a lot of Americans are still angry or fearful and Trump is both shameless and adept at fueling those emotions. This same instinct leads him to behave abominably abroad: Insulting British Prime Minister Theresa May and London Mayor Sadiq Khan, deriding Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada as “Very dishonest & weak” or derisively tossing Starburst candies to German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a meeting of G-7 leaders.
.. The problem, of course, is that the boorish behavior and conflict-stoking policies tend to backfire on the world stage.
.. Trump’s bullying bluster didn’t win big trade concessions from Canada, Mexico, or South Korea; the shiny “new” trade deals Trump negotiated with them were nearly identical to the old arrangements and in some ways inferior to them.
And given how Trump has treated America’s allies, why would May, Merkel, Macron, Abe, or Trudeau do him (or the United States) any favors? The declining US image abroad compounds this problem, as foreign leaders know their own popularity will suffer if they help Trump in any way.
.. Trump’s personal conduct is not even the biggest problem. Arguably, an even bigger issue is the strategic incoherence of his entire transactional approach. His overarching objective is to try to screw the best possible deal out of every interaction, but this approach instead makes it more difficult for the United States to achieve its most important foreign-policy goals.
.. Threatening trade wars with allies in Europe or Canada makes little sense from a purely economic perspective, for example, and it has made it harder for the United States to address the more serious challenge of China’s trade policies.
If Trump were as worried about China’s trade infractions as he claims to be, he would have lined up Europe, Japan, and other major economic actors and confronted China with a united front. Similarly, pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal and threatening allies with secondary sanctions not only raises doubts about America’s judgment (because the deal was working, and the Europeans know it); it just fuels further resentment at America’s shortsighted bullying.
.. It is increasingly clear that Trump was never the brilliant businessman he claimed to be; he got most of his wealth from his father using various shady tax dodges, and the Trump Organization may have been heavily dependent on illegal activities like money laundering.
.. We should focus less on his personal antics and inadequacies and focus more on his inability to formulate effective policies, even on issues where his instincts are in fact mostly correct.
.. Sadly, the 45th US president possesses a world-class ability to get things wrong, even when he’s right.
When voters have to choose between left and right incivility, Democrats will lose.
“If you see anybody from that cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station,” Rep. Waters said in her normal habit of discourse—a shout—“you get out and you create a crowd and you push back on them.”
.. The media is calling this “the civility feud,” though the word “civility” looks quaint and innocent among this crowd.
.. Can the Democratic Party control its left?
.. History suggests that centrist and independent American voters become uncomfortable when the news is dominated, as increasingly it is now, by the left pushing politics by other means. Voters in the past have turned rightward for solutions.
.. Richard Nixon in part rode the “law and order” issue into the White House during a publicly disordered time. Ronald Reagan ran on order, too.
.. Eventually, Democrats saw they would continue to lose elections if they nominated left-wing presidential candidates like George McGovern or Walter Mondale, and so they turned to centrist Southern governors such as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
.. Supporting Sen. Sanders’s Medicare-for-all option is now mandatory writ for the party’s 2020 contenders.
.. The national Democratic template is set: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is it.
.. The always-whirling Mr. Trump is capable of spinning himself off his gyroscope. What he has going for himself is that his opponents are crazed. Mr. Trump knows this, because he keeps feeding their mania.
.. Psychologists will study for years how a candidate and now president whose substantive threat to “our democracy” consists mainly of unprecedented boorishness drove normally temperate people into a frenzy.
.. When the right tips over, it mostly gets grouchy, spending its energies defining people out of conservatism. The problem for the Democratic Party is that its left wing’s frenzies can turn ugly. If politics doesn’t go their way, they go into the streets, or invade a restaurant to shriek at a cabinet secretary.
Over the past week or so, two activist groups in Oregon—Occupy ICE PDX and Direct Action Alliance—have shut down the federal immigration-service building in Portland. “If they arrest us on federal property,” said one organizer, “we’ll shut the roads down. You can’t stop us.”
.. if the choice is between two brands of incivility, the Democratic version generally loses.