Trump Isn’t Just Reversing Obama’s Foreign Policies. He’s Making it Impossible for His Successor to Go Back to Them.

Who says the Trump administration doesn’t know what it’s doing in the Middle East?

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

  1. irreversibly burning U.S. bridges to Iran and
  2. 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—

  1. closing the PLO office in Washington,
  2. withdrawing U.S. assistance from the U.N. agency that supports Palestinian refugees and
  3. 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

  1. Jerusalem,
  2. borders,
  3. refugees and
  4. Palestinian statehood.

Since at least the mid-1990s, both Democratic and Republican administrations have been committed to a two-state solution with a return of the majority of the West Bank to the Palestinians—based on borders from before Israel’s 1967 seizure of that territory—and a physically undivided Jerusalem hosting capitals of both states.But the Trump administration has reversed almost 20 years of U.S. policy by even refusing to unequivocally and consistently endorse the concept in principle of a two-state solution. Trump did support the idea in September 2018. But since then, the administration has dropped the concept and, even worse, delegitimized it. Last week, the Washington Post reportedthat the words Palestinian state are unlikely to appear in the Kushner plan. Even more telling, testifying before Congress last week, Pompeo refused to endorse Palestinian statehood as the goal of U.S. policy.

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.

The other long-standing diplomatic assumption—that settlement activity would be constrained during the period of negotiations andthat 70 to 80 percentof West Bank settlers who are in blocs close to the 1967 lines would be incorporated into Israel proper in exchange for ceding other land to Palestinians—has been undermined by an administration that has no intention of cutting a deal that would leave Palestinians in control of the majority of the West Bank. Indeed, theadministration has virtually erased the concept of the 1967 lines by enabling and greenlighting the expansion of settlement activity and unilateral Israeli actions on the ground without protest or the imposition of any redlines, not just on the West Bank but in Jerusalem as well. In March 2017, Israel announced the creation of a new settlement in the West Bank, the first in decades. After an initial drop during 2017, settlement construction activity increased 20 percent in 2018.

There is zero chance that any Palestinian leader—let alone one as weak and constrained as Mahmoud Abbas—will accept these conditions on the ground as part of a deal. And speculation is even growing that Netanyahu could use Palestinian rejection of the Kushner plan to outright annex portions of the West Bank.

That’s another area where the administration has done major damage. The Trump administration’s announcement on the eve of the recent Israeli election that it recognizes Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights—a decision that was untethered from any logic other than helping to reelect Netanyahu—could portend a U.S. decision to confer similar status onIsrael’s possible decision to annex parts of the West Bank. The administration has refused to challenge Netanyahu’s statement that in a defensive war Israel can keep what it holds. And last week, Pompeo, responding to a reporter’s question, refused to criticize Netanyahu’s statement about annexing West Bank settlements.

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.

What Went Wrong in the Stormy Daniels Case

.. the biggest question might be why the President of the United States didn’t just let her talk.

.. her suit contends that she isn’t bound by the agreement, because Trump never signed it and because his lawyer Michael Cohen had spoken—and lied—about it publicly.

.. The suit also says that the Trump camp used “coercive tactics” to pressure her to stay silent

.. there had been intimations of violence

.. And yet the Clifford case is not only singularly revealing of the President’s character and his operations but also a likely harbinger of major troubles ahead.

.. Cohen said that it was his own “private transaction,” using his money, and that the Trump Organization and the Trump campaign had nothing to do with it. This never made much sense, since the Trump Organization employed him. But, even if Cohen’s story were true, it raised questions, more broadly, about where the money comes from and where it goes in Trump’s dealings.

.. President’s lawyers seem not to have considered what Clifford’s next move would be: challenging the arbitration. They had, in effect, engineered something of a win-win situation for her. Practically speaking, in order for Trump to hold Clifford to the agreement, he has to fight her in court—a process he began Friday—and come out and admit to the deal publicly.

.. CNN and the Journal reported that one of the lawyers who obtained the order was Jill Martin, another Trump Organization employee. (She was the point person in the Trump University fraud case.) A statement from the company said that, like Cohen, Martin had handled the matter only “in her individual capacity.” This paints a picture of the Trump Organization as a place where anything that the company isn’t quite supposed to do might be done as a personal favor, perhaps dressed up as an act of friendship or loyalty. It is a further sign that the special counsel Robert Mueller’s subpoena of Trump Organization business records, reported last week, might turn up a true morass.

.. With the President’s sons meeting with foreign political figures while travelling the world on business trips, with his daughter playing a diplomatic role with leaders of countries where she has commercial interests, and with his son-in-law seemingly marked as a potential recipient of foreign bribes by all and sundry, it’s important to know who pays whom, and for what.

.. The Trump team’s response to the Clifford debacle seems to have been driven by the President’s vanity, temper, and resentment. All of those have also been on display in his larger response to Mueller’s investigation, from his firing of James Comey, the F.B.I. director—an action that exposed him to possible obstruction-of-justice charges—to his apparent desire, last week, to fire Andrew McCabe

.. For a man who has built a career on bluffing and intimidation, Trump is surprisingly clumsy when it comes to those tactics, and oblivious of their costs.

.. After all, why didn’t the President sign the agreement? Did he never intend to, or could he just not be bothered? With Trump, it can be hard to tell bad will from bad lawyering. He regularly demands that his subordinates operate in accordance with what he thinks the law ought to be, rather than what it is.

.. Trump’s lawyers were considering trying to block the broadcast, now scheduled for March 25th, of an interview that Anderson Cooper conducted with Clifford for “60 Minutes.” There is no legal rationale for such prior restraint. But it wouldn’t be the first time that the President has indicated that he believes he has, or should have, the power to silence the press.

.. Then again, Trump’s circle might be trying to enforce Clifford’s confidentiality agreement not for its own sake but in order to send a message to other people, who may have signed similar agreements, about the cost of breaking them. (“In my experience, bullies have one speed and one speed only,” Avenatti told The New Yorker. “They don’t just bully one person. They bully many people.”)

To Stop North Korea, Act Like Israel

So far, these crime bosses have been masterful at circumventing the sanctions that have primarily hurt the enslaved North Korean population.

That’s why the United States and its allies ought to take a page from an Israeli playbook and wage financial warfare against Mr. Kim and his cabal.

.. The notion behind using money as a weapon against terrorism belonged to Meir Dagan, a legendary soldier and spymaster who developed the idea in the nascent days of Israel’s fight against Hamas and terror groups supported by Yasir Arafat’s Palestinian Authority.

Mr. Dagan rightly believed that money was the oxygen that fueled the groups’ suicide bombing campaign against Israel. If Israeli security services could suffocate the funds that paid for the bloodshed, the attacks would stop.

.. Harpoon targeted the banks that held accounts belonging to Palestinian terrorist commanders, and the unit encouraged lawyers — including me — to launch suits in United States federal court seeking monetary damages for victims of state sponsors of terror

.. Harpoon went after Hezbollah’s cocaine business in Venezuela and in Lebanon, as well as its money-laundering activities in West Africa and America.

.. And when the Hezbollah hierarchy was cash strapped, Harpoon targeted the financial institutions that allowed the terrorists to move their cash across continents, ultimately shutting down the Lebanese Canadian Bank

.. Most military commanders acknowledge that there are very few, if any, feasible solutions to today’s standoff with Pyongyang. The only effective path is to unleash an offensive press against Kim’s inner circle.

.. This effort ought to include a full-court press of dirty tricks, coercion, heavy-handed threats and even direct action, all covert and deniable, against Kim’s financial wizards who handle the finances, dispense the narcotics and hijack Bitcoins.

.. Only when the money dries up will the loyalty of the men in Kim’s inner circle be compromised and cut away. The North Korean dictator will then be under enormous pressure to do whatever he can to alleviate the effects of the spies tapping into his cash and control.

Paul Manafort Is in Legal Jeopardy

But Trump may not be :

prosecutors do not obtain warrants to toss the homes of people they regard as cooperating witnesses. When they are dealing with cooperators, prosecutors politely request that documents be produced, expecting the witness (and his lawyers) to comply. If some coercion is thought necessary, they will issue a grand-jury subpoena — an enforceable directive to produce documents, but one that still allows the witness to hand over the materials, not have them forcibly seized. The execution of a search warrant, even if it goes smoothly, is a show of force. It is intimidating

.. I also emphasized its timing: predawn. Under federal law, search warrants are supposed to be executed during daytime hours, when agents can be expected to knock on the door, announce their presence and purpose, and be admitted by the occupant of the premises. If investigators want to search a home before 6 a.m., they need permission. To get it, they have to convince the judge that, if the occupant were alerted to the agents’ presence before they entered, it is likely he would destroy evidence or pose a danger.

.. the FBI entered covertly by picking the lock on Manafort’s front door while he was sleeping. Clearly, that is not standard operating procedure — certainly not in a white-collar case.

.. Mueller’s investigators wanted to start grabbing files and copying hard drives before Manafort had a chance to call his lawyers or impede the search in any way. It was their way of saying Manafort could not be trusted. That’s intimidating, too.

.. Being a foreign agent is not a crime, per se; whether the relationship is criminal depends on the nature of the actions the operative takes (including whether he has disclosed his agency, as required by federal law)

.. So in a FISA investigation, it is not necessary to show probable cause that a suspect has committed a crime in order to search his home or tap his phone; all that is needed is probable cause that he is acting as an agent of a foreign power.

.. the FISA surveillance took place in two phases:

  1. the first, from 2014 until sometime in early 2016;
  2. the second in late 2016 into early 2017

.. Initially, I suspect Manafort was investigated as an agent of the Kremlin-backed Yanukovich faction in Ukraine

.. subsequently, Manafort was investigated as a suspected agent of Russia in connection with the Putin regime’s meddling in the 2016 election. I am betting the probable-cause evidence was overwhelming in Phase I, and sketchy in Phase II.

.. the federal government is not permitted to use FISA as a ruse to conduct what is actually a criminal investigation

.. the criminal search warrant executed at Manafort’s home on July 26 would give us insight into what suspected crimes Mueller is investigating. There would have to have been a probable-cause showing of specific crimes before a judge authorized the warrant; and the warrant itself had to have described the evidence the agents expected to find.

.. Manafort has a good idea of what Mueller is after, because the agents were required by law to provide Manafort with a copy of the warrant and an inventory of what they seized. These have not been publicly revealed.

.. Not only did Manafort meet with Senate Intelligence Committee investigators the day before the search; he was also scheduled to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the very day of the search. Indeed, by pouncing at the precise time Manafort was cooperating with Congress, Mueller’s investigators were able to seize binders of documents that Manafort and his counsel had prepared to assist his Senate testimony.

.. Obviously, though, Manafort would not have the same willingness to testify before Congress if he suddenly had reason to believe he was likely to be indicted (such that any testimony he gave could be used against him in a criminal case). The New York Times reports that Mueller’s prosecutors have told Manafort they intend to indict him. That, too, is intimidating.

.. CNN claims that the first FISA surveillance of Manafort was shut down in 2016, after over a year, due to “lack of evidence.” That is strange. Again, the point of FISA surveillance is not to build a criminal case but to gather intelligence about the foreign power for which the subject is allegedly acting as an agent. To say FISA surveillance was aborted for “lack of evidence” makes it sound like Manafort was not an agent for the Ukrainian faction after all.

.. Was any part of Steele’s claims used by the FBI in applications to the FISA court for surveillance and searches of Manafort or other Trump associates?

.. Was there correlation between (a) the intelligence generated by the FISA surveillance of Manafort and (b) the unmasking of people associated with the Trump campaign?

.. We should stress, of course, that if there was solid evidence of an espionage relationship between Manafort and the Kremlin, there would be nothing necessarily inappropriate in conducting surveillance and unmasking relevant American identities. The question is: Was there solid evidence?