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.
Virgin founder Richard Branson announced he was pulling out of talks on a $1 billion deal with Saudi Arabia over the killing of a Washington Post columnist. State involvement in the killing, “if proved true, would clearly change the ability of any of us in the West to do business with the Saudi government,” Mr. Branson said.
Days later in a text message, Mr. Branson counseled the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, to release female activists his country had imprisoned.
“If you were to pardon these women and a number of men too, it would show the world the Government is truly moving into the 21stCentury,” Mr. Branson texted the crown prince. “It won’t change what happened in Turkey but it would go a long way to start and change people’s view.”
Mr. Branson was one of the first in a parade of CEOs, fund managers and bankers who scrambled to figure out how to preserve their relationships with Prince Mohammed after the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul embassy in the fall.
Mr. Branson urged Prince Mohammed to change his ways. Others adopted a dual strategy of public condemnation while trying to continue to do business as usual. Some shunned the formality of Saudi Arabia’s high-profile investment conference but pursued informal gatherings instead.
The reason: Many have tied their companies’ future to Saudi money and Crown Prince Mohammed’s wide-ranging economic overhauls.
“This whole Khashoggi thing doesn’t mean anything,” said hedge-fund manager John Burbank, who has been one of the U.S.’s most prominent investors in Saudi stocks. “It means much less than the big, sweeping liberalization that’s happening in the kingdom.”
MBS, as Prince Mohammed is known, politely thanked Mr. Branson for his input. A few days later, the crown prince publicly denied involvement in the murder, calling it a heinous crime. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has since concluded that he likely ordered the killing.
American investors in Saudi stocks, besides Mr. Burbank, include Peter Thiel and hedge fund Bienville Capital Management, among others. Roughly 4% of the total Saudi market is held by foreigners.
“One person’s life doesn’t matter unless it’s MBS’s,” Mr. Burbank says. “Khashoggi doesn’t matter.” He adds that investors who have steered away from Saudi Arabia are hypocrites, because some of them also invest in Russia and Turkey.
Mr. Burbank was among the dozens of Western executives and investors who showed up at the home of Yasir al Rumayyan—chairman of Saudi Arabia’s sovereign Public Investment Fund, which the crown prince oversees—on the eve of the investor conference in October. Over platters piled high with roast lamb, towers of sweets in golden birdcages and champagne flutes of fruit juice, they toasted their relationship beneath palm trees tinted by purple spotlights, attendees said.
SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son backed out of the conference, but he still showed up at the lamb feast. Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi also pulled out of the conference, but Uber co-founder and board member Travis Kalanick was at the party, along with former congressman and current banker Eric Cantor and his boss, banker Ken Moelis, and venture capitalist Jim Breyer. Thiel Capital portfolio manager John MacMahon also appeared at the dinner, and the chief executive of Silicon Valley construction startup Katerra, Michael Marks, attended the investment conference.
Matt Barnard, the CEO of Plenty—an indoor-farming startup with $200 million in backing from a Saudi-backed SoftBank fund—flew to Saudi Arabia for the conference. But he returned home without attending, a Plenty spokeswoman says.
The cost of shunning Saudi Arabia could be high. Some business partners fear losing access to the kingdom in the future if they pull out of Saudi deals now.
Ari Emanuel, the CEO of Hollywood talent agency Endeavor, is negotiating to return a $400 million investment that the Saudi sovereign-wealth fund made in his company earlier this year, people familiar with the company’s plan say.
In the wake of Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance, Mr. Emanuel said he was “really concerned about it.”
.. “Were there mistakes made? Absolutely there were mistakes made,” said Matt Michelsen, an associate of John Burbank and a Silicon Valley investor. “But this place is changing. I saw Starbucks opening on multiple corners. There are women walking around without abayas. It’s a fundamental shift that’s occurred.”
Two days earlier Trump had to sit alongside three past presidents through the funeral of President George H.W. Bush. With Bush lauded as almost his exact opposite in style and manner, Trump looked throughout as if he wished he were anywhere else. Meanwhile, the stock market’s entire gains for the year were wiped out as Trump’s supposed trade truce with China fell apart.
It also became clear just how badly Trump has lost control of Congress. The Democrats’ gain in the House of Representatives continued to rise (the latest number is a stunning 40 seats), as closely fought, undecided races in last month’s midterm election continued to fall the party’s way. And some Republican senators are finally breaking ranks with Trump over the role of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (a pet of both Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner) in the grisly murder of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Unlike Trump, the senators refused to subordinate the moral and real-world implications of permitting a foreign government to murder a US-based journalist to the president’s exaggerated claims about the Kingdom’s future arms purchases and its supposed strategic role in curbing Iran’s regional ambitions.
.. At long last, we learned what embarrassing information Russian President Vladimir Putin had on Trump, after Cohen told prosecutorsthat Trump had long sought to build a grand, highly lucrative hotel in Moscow, permission for which had to come from the Kremlin. (Russia also stood to gain significant revenue from the project.)
.. Cohen’s testimony also highlighted the likelihood that various aspects of US foreign policy, including favorable statements about or treatment of certain autocratic leaders, have been influenced by Trump’s private business interests – existing or desired – in those countries, which include Turkey, the Philippines, and Saudi Arabia, as well as Russia. Meanwhile, Trump’s hotels, especially his expensive new one near the White House, received business from various countries. This is especially significant because, unlike his predecessors, Trump refused to detach himself from his private business when he took office
.. The corruption extends to Trump’s immediate circle. His daughter Ivanka was awarded trademarks from China for her clothing line (now defunct, though she has retained the trademarks and sought new ones). Her husband, Kushner, is believed to have used his position to try to find funds to pay off excessive debt incurred by his family’s real-estate business. And Cohen literally sold his supposed access to Trump to businesses for a reported $4 million (though how much, if anything, he delivered is open to question).
.. Trump’s ever-stranger behavior of late – including more frequent and more hysterical tweets – has been widely attributed to his growing realization of what the Democrats’ takeover of the House of Representatives means for his presidency.
I’m increasingly concerned that the U.S. and China are heading for a collision. At a time when the global economy and world stock markets are fragile, this would be bad for everybody. I do think there is a reasonable chance that Presidents Trump and Xi Jinping will hammer out some kind of a tentative deal at their G20 meeting in two weeks, but I fear that may be only a temporary ceasefire and that the longer term trends are likely to lead to more friction. One basic problem is that Trump and Xi are a bit alike: Both are overconfident, impetuous authoritarian nationalists who disregard human rights. Hence the symmetry of two freight trains colliding, the topic of my column on the long run souring toward China and the dangers ahead. Here’s what you should watch out for.
.. I’m still gnashing my teeth at the “caravan hoax” pulled by President Trump to scare voters into supporting GOP candidates in the midterms, and I think too many news organizations were too credulous in covering the story without sufficient context and fact-checking. We in the media shouldn’t allow ourselves to become a channel for fear-mongering and demonization. And now it looks as if the U.S. may spend $200 million pointlessly keeping U.S. troops in the desert near the border, away from their families over Thanksgiving, as a forgotten prop for the midterms. Meanwhile, we can’t afford effective treatment for 90 percent of people with drug addictions, and we can’t afford to reduce lead exposures that damage the brains of more than half a million American kids each year. Grrrrrr.
Saudi Arabia has changed its story again on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, pinning it on some fall guys but protecting the crown prince. And the U.S. seems happy to buy into that cover-up. Indeed, NBC reports that the U.S. is considering deporting a Turkish dissident cleric (something Turkey very much wants) as a kind of bribe to get Turkey to keep quiet about the torture, murder and dismemberment of Jamal. What the Trump administration doesn’t seem to appreciate is that the crown prince is not a force for stability in the Middle East, but for instability (as we’ve seen in the mess he’s made with Yemen, Qatar and Lebanon). Check out this extraordinary video reconstruction of the murder of Jamal and subsequent cover-up.