27 April 2016

Trump: America first, Israel second

Time magazine's website has a transcript of the foreign policy speech Donald Trump made today. The Republican front-runner made "America First" his theme, which guarantees you another wave of editorials denouncing the man for isolationism. For generations that has been a toxic slogan because it was a slogan of the pre-Pearl Harbor opponents of American intervention in World War II. However, the isolationists of 1941 didn't copyright the phrase and people 75 years later ought to be able to use it without being condemned by association -- and in any event Trump himself has no problem characterizing World War II as a good war in which "the greatest generation beat back the Nazis and Japanese imperialists," while the true heirs of the old isolationists still question whether all the trouble was worth it. For Trump, "America First" means, in his own words, "Under a Trump administration, no American citizen will ever again feel that their needs come second to the citizens of a foreign country." That doesn't sound unreasonable, and overall, despite his still-primitive rhetoric -- our leaders should be able to talk in complete sentences all the time and avoid using "beautiful" and other favorite adjectives too often -- his priorities appear mostly free of ideology. Trump's foreign policy would be conservative in the old sense of the word, out to "promote regional stability, not radical change" around the world. He boasts today of having opposed the invasion of Iraq -- a random comment to Howard Stern notwithstanding -- and points to that country and Libya as examples of what happens when democratization by force results in destabilization. He refuses to demonize either Russia or China, though he sees the latter as an economic adversary, but promises to make them respect the U.S. more than he thinks they do now. He wants the other NATO countries to pay what he points out to be their existing fair share for defense when most of them, he claims, are not. He didn't mention Vladimir Putin's name in the speech, and while he sees room for common ground in the fight against Muslim terrorism -- there'd be common ground there with China, too -- he warns that "If we can’t make a deal under my administration, a deal that’s great — not good, great — for America, but also good for Russia, then we will quickly walk from the table." I actually like his lack of certitude about Russia when he says "Some say the Russians won’t be reasonable. I intend to find out." I infer from that a lack of ideologically preconceived notions of what Russia wants or represents. If he can extend that open-mindedness around the whole world he might actually accomplish something.

Unfortunately, Trump has a couple of blind spots in the usual location: the Middle East. Understandably, his main concern in that region is defeating the self-styled Islamic State, which he promises to do sooner than anyone expects. But you would think that if Trump's number-one foreign policy goal -- apart from bringing jobs back to the U.S. -- is to destroy the Sunni Muslim terrorist entity that is provoking terrorist attacks in this country, that the self-styled master of the deal might hasten to make a deal with the IS's Shiite Muslim enemies. That doesn't seem to be an option, however, because if there's one nation out there that Trump sees as evil in the all-too typical American way, it's Iran. Why not? I don't think he's so dumb that he doesn't know the difference between Sunnis and Shiites, and I don't think it's because he sees all Muslims as the enemy. In his speech he vows to work "very closely with our allies in the Muslim world, all of which are at risk from radical Islamic violence," though I wonder which countries he means by that. Could it be that Trump still carries a grudge over the hostage crisis of 1979? He definitely takes the recent incident involving American sailors to heart, seeing it as a huge humiliation for the U.S. But I can't help thinking that his animus against Iran -- a nation whose government admittedly gives you plenty of reasons to despise it -- is that Iran, more than the IS, remains the great existential threat to Israel's existence, the country most likely, in the Zionist imagination, to nuke the Jewish state. Trump can find a lot of reasons to legitimately criticize President Obama's foreign policy, but the fact that Obama has pissed off Israel is not really one of them. But when the subject turns to Israel Trump sounds just like a neocon.

Israel, our great friend and the one true democracy in the Middle East has been snubbed and criticized by an administration that lacks moral clarity. Just a few days ago, Vice President Biden again criticized Israel, a force for justice and peace, for acting as an impatient peace area in the region.[sic?]

By his own stated principles, or in line with his disavowal of ideological principles, Trump ought not to care whether Israel is a democracy or not. Meanwhile, describing Israel as "a force for justice and peace" borders on the delusional. Why he should think this way when he is neither an End Times believer nor in need of Sheldon Adelson's money is beyond me, but what else is new when it comes to the Middle East? Yet if an aspiring American president needs to show he's open-minded about foreign policy, that part of the world is where he has to do it, and that's where Trump's mind seems to be closed by prejudice and fantasy. He boasts of being willing to walk away from the table with Iran when Obama would not, but he should be willing to walk away from the table with any nation. If Israel is to be an exception to this, he should come up with better reasons than those that make him sound like every other mainstream American politician. And if he can't think originally about the Middle East you have to wonder how different the rest of his foreign policy actually will be. I'm not suggesting that he embrace Iran and throw Israel under the bus, but I would expect Donald Trump to talk about bringing those two countries to the table and making a deal, yet I didn't today. He's clearly going to take sides in the Middle East, it seems, and the consequences of that are a lesson he has yet to learn.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Must be polls showed his support among jewish voters is sagging. I have no problem with the idea of cutting all foreign support out of our budget until we deal with the problems facing our own population. The more money we have available to deal with those problems, the sooner we can solve them. And it isn't like Israel does a damn thing for the average American citizen. Support for that terrorist state may equal a few tens of thousands of votes for politicians, but it isn't the lives of politicians (or their children) that are being destroyed in that particular gristmill we call the middle east.