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.
WASHINGTON — In the middle of his crowded dinner in Buenos Aires with President Xi Jinping of China, President Trump leaned across the table, pointed to Robert Lighthizer, the United States trade representative whose skepticism of China runs deep, and declared, “That’s my negotiator!”
He then turned to Peter Navarro, his even more hawkish trade adviser, adding, “And that’s my tough guy!” according to aides with knowledge of the exchange.
Now, with talks between China and the United States set to begin this week in Beijing, Mr. Lighthizer, aided by Mr. Navarro, faces the assignment of a lifetime: redefining the trade relationship between the world’s two largest economies by Mr. Trump’s March 2 deadline to reach an agreement.
And he must do it in a way that tilts the balance of power toward the United States. His approach will have significant ramifications for American companies, workers and consumers whose fortunes, whether Mr. Trump likes it or not, are increasingly tied to China.
First, however, Mr. Lighthizer will need to keep a mercurial president from wavering in the face of queasy financial markets, which have suffered their steepest annual decline since 2008. Despite his declaration that trade wars are “easy to win” and his recent boast that he is a “Tariff Man,” Mr. Trump is increasingly eager to reach a deal that will help calm the markets, which he views as a political electrocardiogram of his presidency.
Mr. Trump has repeatedly told his advisers that Mr. Xi is someone with whom he can cut a big deal, according to people who have spoken with the president. On Saturday, Mr. Trump called Mr. Xi to discuss the status of talks, tweeting afterward that good progress was being made. “Deal is moving along very well,” Mr. Trump said.
The administration has tried to force China to change its ways with stiff tariffs on $250 billion worth of Chinese products, restrictions on Chinese investment in the United States and threats of additional levies on another $267 billion worth of goods. China has responded with its own tit-for-tat tariffs on American goods. But over a steak dinner during the Group of 20 summit meeting in Argentina, Mr. Xi and Mr. Trump agreed to a 90-day truce and to work toward an agreement that Mr. Trump said could lead to “one of the largest deals ever made.”
Mr. Lighthizer — whose top deputy will meet with Chinese officials this week ahead of more high-level talks in February — has played down any differences with Mr. Trump and views his role as ultimately executing the directive of his boss. But the trade representative, who declined to be interviewed, has told friends and associates that he is intent on preventing the president from being talked into accepting “empty promises” like temporary increases in soybean or beef purchases.
Mr. Lighthizer, 71, is pushing for substantive changes, such as forcing China to end its practice of requiring American companies to hand over valuable technology as a condition of doing business there. But after 40 years of dealing with China and watching it dangle promises that do not materialize, Mr. Lighthizer remains deeply skeptical of Beijing and has warned Mr. Trump that the United States may need to exert more pressure through additional tariffs in order to win true concessions.
When Mr. Lighthizer senses that anyone — even Mr. Trump — might be going a little soft on China, he opens a paper-clipped manila folder he totes around and brandishes a single-page, easy-reading chart that lists decades of failed trade negotiations with Beijing, according to administration officials.
“Bob’s attitude toward China is very simple. He wants them to surrender,” said William A. Reinsch, a former federal trade official who met him three decades ago when Mr. Lighthizer was a young aide for former Senator Bob Dole of Kansas. “His negotiating strategy is simple too. He basically gives them a list of things he wants them to do and says, ‘Fix it now.’”
Mr. Trump’s selection of Mr. Lighthizer last month to lead the talks initially spooked markets, which viewed the China skeptic’s appointment as an ominous sign. It also annoyed Chinese officials, who had been talking with the Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, a more moderate voice on trade and the primary point of contact for Liu He, China’s top trade negotiator. Mr. Mnuchin has urged the president to avoid a protracted trade war, even if that entails reaching an interim agreement that leaves some issues unresolved.
Mr. Mnuchin, who attended the G-20 dinner, helped Mr. Trump craft an upbeat assessment declaring the Buenos Aires meeting “highly successful” in the presidential limousine back to the airport, according to a senior administration official.
The disparate views among Mr. Trump’s top trade advisers have prompted sparring — both publicly and behind the scenes.
During an Oval Office meeting with the trade team the fall of 2017, Mr. Lighthizer accused Mr. Mnuchin and Gary D. Cohn, the former National Economic Council director, of bad-mouthing him to free-trade Republican senators.
The argument grew so heated that the White House chief of staff, John F. Kelly, quickly pulled the combatants into the nearby Roosevelt Room and away from the president, where the argument raged on for a few more minutes, according to two witnesses.
Emily Davis, a spokeswoman for the United States trade representative, disputed the account.
Mr. Lighthizer has since worked to increase his own face time with Mr. Trump. He has joked to colleagues that he has more influence with Mr. Trump during winter months because he is able to hitch a ride on Air Force One during the president’s flights down to Mar-a-Lago, which is several miles from Mr. Lighthizer’s own $2.3 million waterfront condo in Palm Beach, Fla.
He used that access to argue to Mr. Trump that the United States has never had more leverage to extract structural reforms on intellectual property, forced transfer of technology from American companies and cybercrime. But while Mr. Trump has jumped at the chance to claim victory in changing China’s ways, experts say that what Mr. Lighthizer is demanding would require significant shifts in how Beijing’s central government and its manufacturing sector coordinate their activities, and that might simply not be possible in the short term.
“Good luck with that,” Mr. Scissors said.
Those who know Mr. Lighthizer say he will try to force concessions through a combination of pressure tactics, like tariffs, and public condemnation. Mr. Lighthizer — who described his own negotiating style as “knowing where the leverage is” during a 1984 interview — typically presents few specific demands during initial talks while publicly bashing efforts by the other side.
He used that approach during recent talks with Canada and Mexico to revise the North American Free Trade Agreement, criticizing foreign counterparts as intransigent and characterizing complaints by American businesses as pure greed.
Mr. Lighthizer’s unsparing view of China comes, in part, from his childhood in Ashtabula, Ohio, an industrial and shipping town on the Great Lakes hit by the offshoring of steel and chemical production. For much of his career, Mr. Lighthizer was a lonely protectionist voice in a Republican Party dominated by free traders, alternating between jobs in government and a lucrative private law career representing large American corporations like United States Steel in trade cases against China.
Mr. Lighthizer found his way into Mr. Trump’s orbit through his work in the steel industry, where he gained prominence by filing lawsuits accusing Japan and China of dumping metals into the United States, in violation of trade laws. In 2011, Mr. Lighthizer caught Mr. Trump’s eye with an opinion piece in The Washington Times, in which he defended Mr. Trump’s approach to China as consistent with conservative ideology and compared the future president to Republican icons like Ronald Reagan.
Taciturn in public and self-deprecating in private, Mr. Lighthizer sees himself as a serious player on the world stage: Two recent guests to Mr. Lighthizer’s Georgetown townhouse were greeted by the stern visage of their host staring down at them from an oil portrait on the wall.
The trade adviser is guarded around Mr. Trump, often waiting until the end of meetings to make his points and quietly nudging the president away from actions he views as counterproductive, current and former officials said. That was the case in mid-2017 when he cautioned the president against withdrawing unilaterally from the World Trade Organization, adding for emphasis, “And I hate the W.T.O. as much as anybody.”
He does not always get his way. In the wake of a new trade agreement with Mexico and Canada this fall, Mr. Lighthizer urged Mr. Trump to consider easing steel and aluminum tariffs on those countries and replacing them with less burdensome quotas. Mr. Trump rejected his plan, according to negotiators from all three countries.
A poker-faced Mr. Lighthizer broke the news to his Mexican and Canadian counterparts by declaring the proposal was inoperative, one of the officials said.
The president also ignored Mr. Lighthizer’s advice in early December when he announced that he intended to begin the six-month process of withdrawing the United States from Nafta in order to pressure House Democrats into passing the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement.
That threat undermined months of quiet negotiations between Mr. Lighthizer, labor groups and Democrats like Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Representative Nancy Pelosi of California to try to win their support for the new trade deal. Mr. Trump has yet to follow through on his threat, and Mr. Lighthizer continues trying to work with Democrats to get the new trade deal approved.
“Bob is trying to provide stability and focus in a completely chaotic environment,” Mr. Brown said. “I can’t speak for Bob, but I am certain he is frustrated. How could you not be frustrated as the U.S. trade representative for a president who knows what his gut thinks but hasn’t put much of his brains into trade?”