I gave a much shortened version of this talk on the role of religion in the Israeli/Arab conflict this afternoon at DACOR Bacon House, a club for retired US Foreign Service and military officers: What Has God Got To Do With It? Comments/suggestions would be much appreciated.
Is America stronger after 11 months of Donald Trump or not?
It is demonstrably weaker, mainly because of his diplomatic moves and non-moves, but also because Trump has done nothing to reduce American military commitments and a good deal to expand them. Let me enumerate:
The diplomatic front:
- Trump withdrew from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) early in the game. The remaining negotiating partners have X-ed out the provisions the US wanted on labor and environmental protection and are preparing to proceed, without American participation. TPP was America’s ace in the Asia Pacific.
- He is withdrawing as well from the Paris Climate Change accord. That is also proceeding without the US, which will be unable to affect international deliberations on climate change unless and until it rejoins.
- He has withdrawn from UNESCO, which excludes the US from participation in a lot of cultural, scientific and educational endeavors.
- He hasn’t announced withdrawal from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), but the negotiations on revising it are thought to be going very badly, mainly because of excessive US demands.
- He has refused to certify that the Iran nuclear deal is in the US interest, which is so patently obvious that the Republican-controlled Congress is making no moves to withdraw from it.
- His ill-framed appeal to the Saudis to halt financing of terrorists has precipitated a dramatic split among US allies within the Gulf Cooperation Council.
- Through his son-in-law he encouraged the Saudis to try to try to depose Lebanon’s prime minister and embargo Qatar, making the prime minister more popular than ever and shifting Doha’s allegiance to Iran.
- He has continued American support for the Saudi/Emirati war effort in Yemen, while at the same time the State Department has called for an end to the Saudi/Emirati blockade due to the humanitarian crisis there.
- His decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem heightened tensions between Israel and the Palestinians, undermined his own peace initiative, and obstructed the rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia he hoped for.
- He has done nothing to counter Iran’s growing influence in Iraq and Syria, or Russia’s position in Syria and Ukraine.
- He initially embraced Turkey’s now President Erdogan but has watched helplessly while Turkey tarnishes its democratic credentials and drifts into the Russian orbit.
- He has also embraced other autocrats: Philippine President Duterte, China’s President Xi, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to name only three.
- He has failed to carry the banner of American values and preferred instead transactional relationships that have so far produced nothing substantial for the US.
The military front:
- Use of drones is way up.
- So is deployment of US troops in Europe, Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, not to mention ships and planes in the Asia Pacific.
- The Islamic State, while retreating in Syria and Iraq, is advancing in Afghanistan, where the Taliban and Al Qaeda are also holding their own.
- Allies are hesitating to pitch in, because the president is erratic. Japan, South Korea, and the Europeans are hedging because the US can no longer be relied on.
- The US continues to back the Saudi and Emirati campaign against the Houthis in Yemen, precipitating a massive humanitarian crisis.
- Cyberthreats to the US, including its elections, have increased, without any counter from the administration.
- Promises that North Korea would not be allowed to develop a missile that could strike the US have gone unfulfilled, and Trump did nothing effective once it accomplished that goal.
- Military options against North Korea, which are all that Trump seems to be interested in, will bring catastrophic results not only for Koreans but also for US forces stationed there and in the region.
- Russia continues to occupy part of Ukraine, with no effective military or diplomatic response by the US, and Moscow continues its aggressive stance near the Baltics, in the North Sea, in the Arctic, and in the Pacific.
The diplomatic record is one of almost unmitigated failure and ineffectiveness, apart from new UN Security Council sanctions on North Korea. The military record is more mixed: ISIS is defeated on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria, but that is a victory well foreshadowed in the previous administration. It is also far from reassuring, since ISIS will now go underground and re-initiate its terrorist efforts. None of the other military pushes has done more than hold the line. Anyone who expected Trump to withdraw from excessive military commitments should be very disappointed. Anyone who expects him to be successful diplomatically without a fully staffed and empowered State Department is deluded.
The US is more absent diplomatically than present, and more present militarily than effective. We are punching well below our weight. This should be no surprise: the State Department is eviscerated and the Pentagon is exhausted. Allies are puzzled. Adversaries are taking advantage.
Where will we be after another three years of this?
I spent three days last week in Baghdad: two talking with people from all over the Middle East (with the important exception of Turkey) about the current situation and one talking with Iraqis.
First Baghdad: It is looking and sounding far more peaceful than it did six years ago, when I last visited. No detonations, lots of trees and other plants, heavy traffic, and bustling sidewalks. I didn’t get out of the Green Zone a lot, but we did stop in Kadhimia and Adhamiyah to see the main mosques. Apart from the all too evident sectarian character of both (the former Shia and the latter Sunni), there was nothing remarkable: just people going about normal life shopping, chatting, praying, strolling, and honking. What a change from 2004-2011, when I visited a couple of times per year. Adhamiyah during part of that time had to be surrounded with T-walls and checkpoints to protect its population from slaughter.
The Iraqi leadership: We of course only met a few people in high places, including the President, the Prime Minister, the Speaker of parliament, and one minister, in addition to a member of parliament and some of the prime minister’s staff. All are happy to see the Islamic State defeated on the battlefield and all are concerned not to allow it to revive. All are also looking to make cross-sectarian or cross-ethnic alliances in advance of next year’s May 12 election. None were waving sectarian or ethnic identity as their main calling card. This data suggests why (sorry for the size–Wordpress won’t scale it up):
In the general population, sectarian and ethnic identities are still terribly important. While Ayatollah Sistani’s call for volunteers roused some Sunnis to the cause of fighting ISIS, the Popular Mobilization Units he spawned are mostly aggressively Shia and believed to harbor political ambitions. Nor has the Kurdish retreat from pursuing independence reduced popular Kurdish enthusiasm for their own, independent state.
But the leadership has come to understand that gaining a majority in parliament and thereby control of the state requires, under the somewhat ramshackle 2005 constitution, coalitions. Besides, most Iraqis are looking for civil or secular technocrats to run the country. That reduces the relevance of ethnic and sectarian identity, of which Iraqis seem to have had their fill, at least as qualifications for governing.
None of this means the competition among the elite is finished, or even attenuated. To the contrary: all the main sectarian and ethnic blocks are fragmenting. The Kurds are no longer as united as once they were, among the Shia both the Dawa party and what used to be the Supreme Council are split, and there is no clearly dominant figure among the Sunnis. This should make cross-ethnic and cross-sectarian alliances a far more important factor than they have been in the past.
The other Middle Easterners: The mood among the other Middle Easterners attending this session of the Middle East Institute’s Dialogue was likewise more sanguine and friendly than I would have anticipated. All, like the Iraqis, are glad to see the Islamic State dealt defeat in Iraq and Syria, even if they anticipate that it will go underground and re-emerge as an insurgency. All disapproved but seemed more puzzled than angry about President Trump’s announcement on moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. All were happy to see Iraq in a better place.
There the commonalities seemed to end. The Iranians, who in the past have sometimes appeared irascible, were calm and analytical as well as concerned that their victory in Syria brought responsibilities they would rather avoid and anxious for a political solution in Yemen. They also seemed concerned that Iran’s effort to defend itself by supporting Shia proxy forces in the region was at its limit.
The Saudis and Emiratis were enthused about the new direction Riyadh is taking not only in Iraq but also in Yemen and in domestic Saudi policy. Others from Arab countries (Egypt and Jordan) were more reflective and a bit unsure what to make of the “new” Saudi Arabia. Several were concerned that the war is not really over: an Israeli or American attack on the Iranians or Hizbollah there could renew hostilities, not to mention the risk of an American clash with the Russians.
Unfortunately there were neither Turks nor Kurds in these group discussions. Had there been, the atmosphere and substance would have been more contentious. The uncertainty about American policy towards the Syrian Kurds is still big: will the Americans restrain them from attacking inside Turkey, or helping the Kurdish insurgents there? Will the Americans try to take back the heavier weapons they provided? Will the Americans withdraw precipitously? There are a lot of known unknowns that could affect the situation in Syria dramatically.
The extra-regional great powers: While a Moscow-based participant was quick to suggest that Russia had defeated ISIS, the Russians and Chinese were concerned, not happy, that post-ISIS Syria is their responsibility. They want the US involved, for both political and financial reasons. The Americans are showing no such inclination. Their assumption is that the Astana/Sochi process run by the Russians with cooperation from Iran and Turkey has superseded the Geneva process run by the UN to resolve the political conflict in Syria. They see no reason beyond defeating ISIS and possibly countering Iran for the American presence in Syria.
Bottom line: Despite the war in Yemen and the uncertainties surrounding how the war is ending in Syria, there is more reason to be sanguine about the region than people in Washington perceive. The bad news is it may not last.
- Trump’s Jerusalem Decision: Implications and Consequences | Monday, December 11 | 11:00 am – 12:00 pm | Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars (event will be held by phone) | Register Here | President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the state of Israel carries profound consequences for U.S. policy, relations with the Arab world, the international community, and the pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peace. Join us as three veteran observers and analysts of the Middle East and the Arab-Israeli arena analyze and interpret the change in U.S. policy and its consequences for the region. (Toll Free #: 888-942-8140; Conference #: 1-517-308-9203; Conference Passcode: 13304). Speakers will include H.E. Dr. Husam Zomlot, Chief Representative of the PLO General Delegation to the United States, Ambassador Daniel Shapiro, Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel, David Horovitz of the Times of Israel, and moderator Aaron David Miller. The Wilson Center’s Jane Harman will introduce the event.
- Beyond Stock-Taking: The Path Ahead to a Global Compact for Migration | Monday, December 11 | 11:00 am – 12:00 pm | Migration Policy Institute (event will be a webinar) | Register Here | Representatives of national governments, UN agencies, and key civil-society organizations convened in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico this week to take stock of the progress that has been made towards conceptualizing the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration (GCM). Formal negotiations will begin in January to fulfill the commitment made at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2016 by Member States to negotiate a Global Compact for Migration by the end of 2018—a task that was complicated with the decision by the Trump administration to withdraw from the further consultations. To reflect on the latest developments and the outcomes of the stocktaking meeting, the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) will host a discussion with Eva Åkerman Börje, Senior Policy Advisor in the office of the UN Special Representative for International Migration, and Ilse Hahn, Head of Division on Policy Issues of Displacement and Migration, from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). The discussion, moderated by MPI Senior Fellow Kathleen Newland, will also draw on the conclusions of a recently published MPI policy brief, The Global Compact for Migration: How Does Development Fit In?
- Jerusalem: The Fatal Blow to Trump’s “Ultimate Deal”? | Tuesday, December 12 | 9:30 – 11:00 am | Arab Center Washington DC (held at the National Press Club) | Register Here | Arab Center Washington DC will convene a panel of Middle East scholars to discuss the recent announcement by President Trump declaring Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Speakers will include Perry Cammack of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Zaha Hassan of New America, Yousef Munayyer of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, and moderator Khalil Jahshan of the Arab Center Washington DC.
- The Geneva Process: Toward a Political Solution in Syria | Tuesday, December 12 | 12:30 – 2:00 pm | Foundation for Political, Economic, and Social Research (SETA Foundation) | Register Here | The establishment of four deconfliction zones through the Astana process, backed by Russia, Iran, and Turkey, has led to the restarting of the UN-backed Geneva process. In the latest round of peace talks in Geneva, there are few signs that a constructive engagement is taking place. The Assad regime’s delegation walked out of the meetings on Friday as the opposition has maintained its position that Assad play no role in any future post-conflict government. Both the US and Turkey support the Geneva process to end the conflict, but competing interests between the regime and the opposition as well as external actors with varied goals promise further uncertainty about the fate of the talks. While the fall of ISIS’ last stronghold in Raqqa signifies a turning point, many experts have pointed out the continued threat posed by the terror group not only to a peace settlement in Syria but to regional stability as well. As the anti-ISIS campaign winds down, it is not clear what will happen to the US-supported “local partners,” such as the PYD, given Turkey’s strong opposition to their inclusion in the Geneva talks. While all main actors agree that the only resolution to the civil war is a political one, it remains unclear whether the Geneva process will provide the necessary platform to reconcile differences between the regime and the opposition as well as among the external actors. Please join us for a discussion with a panel of distinguished experts on the future of the Geneva peace process and how a political resolution in Syria might be reached. Speakers will include Mona Yacoubian of the U.S. Institute of Peace, Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Hassan Hassan of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, and Kadir Ustun of the SETA Foundation. Kilic Kanat of the SETA Foundation will moderate.
- Yemen: A Country in Crisis | Tuesday, December 12 | 12:30 pm | Council on Foreign Relations | Register Here | The “What to Do About…” series highlights a specific issue and features experts who will put forward competing analyses and policy prescriptions in a mock high-level U.S. government meeting. This event will feature Gerald M. Feierstein of the Middle East Institute, Mary Beth Long of Global Alliance Advisors, LLC, and Stephen Seche of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
- The Implications of Trump’s Jerusalem Decision | Thursday, December 14 | 12:00 – 1:30 pm | Foundation for Political, Economic, and Social Research (SETA Foundation) | Register Here | On December 6, President Trump announced that “it is time to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.” He added that the State Department would now prepare to relocate the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The announcement provoked near universal opposition and condemnation around the world and triggered protests and clashes in the region. East Jerusalem has been under Israeli occupation since 1967 and the Trump administration’s move is a departure from the decades-old US position to leave the status of Jerusalem to the final negotiations in the now defunct peace process. While President Trump made a reference to the two-state solution in his speech and the administration is expected to put forward its own peace plan, the Jerusalem announcement appears to complicate the prospects of peace. Where does this decision leave the prospects of a two-state solution? Can the US still play a constructive role in achieving lasting peace? What are the implications for US interests in the region? Please join us for a discussion with a panel of distinguished experts on the future of the peace process as well as the regional and global implications of President Trump’s Jerusalem decision. Speakers will include Yousef Munayyer of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, Ilan Goldenberg of the Center for a New American Security, Joyce Karam of Al-Hayat and The National, independent author and news analyst Mark Perry, and moderator Kilic Kanat of the SETA Foundation.
Three questions arise about President Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem:
- why did he do it?
- what will the consequences be?
- will it ever get built?
The why is domestic politics. He promised to do it during the campaign and his deepest-pocketed supporters wanted it done. The move gets a lot of support in the Christian evangelical community and far less among Jews, but the President needs concrete examples of fulfilling his campaign promises, many of which he has abandoned in office.
The opposition of allies and friends in Europe and the Middle East had little impact beyond inclusion in the announcement the assertion that it is not intended to prejudice a future decision on the boundaries of Jerusalem. That is specious, since he also implied that Jerusalem would remain undivided, which is the key issue. The announcement included nothing attractive from the perspective of Palestinians, Arabs, or Muslims more generally, which is why they see it as vitiating any potential role of the US as an honest broker in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
As for other consequences, we’ll have to wait and see. Protests are the least of it. There are many other longer-term possibilities. Trump has certainly cast doubt on the viability of the two-state solution most Israelis and Palestinians as well as the US and most of the rest of the world have been supporting for decades. Palestinians don’t want a state that doesn’t have its capital in Jerusalem any more than Israelis do.
If Palestinians can’t have their own state, they will seek equal rights within the single one, which will bring into doubt the state’s Jewish character. Arabs are likely the majority already, or soon will be, in the area Israel currently controls, if we count Gaza as well as the West Bank. The Israelis might want to give Gaza to Egypt, which controlled it in the past, but the Egyptians won’t take it: they don’t want to absorb a destitute Palestinian population that is in part Islamist. They’ve got enough trouble already in continuous Sinai.
The Trump administration is a radical one that enjoys upsetting the apple cart. The President likes to think this will open the way to progress. It is far more likely to end his own peace initiative, which son-in-law Kushner is heading. I even wonder whether, having realized that initiative was going no place, Trump decided to do something that would distract attention and engender enough violence so that its demise could be blamed on the Palestinians. But I suppose that just shows I’ve spent too much time lately in the Middle East, which loves conspiracy theories.
It is far more likely that ignorance and bullheadedness led to the decision to move the embassy. Now let’s see if Congress, which pushed for it, is ready to appropriate the several hundred million dollars it will cost to build the kind of fortress the United States will require in Jerusalem. Is it possible that we’ll suffer the consequences of this decision, but not see the facility built?
PS: For interesting Israeli responses to the Jerusalem move, see the short statements from Mitvim, the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.
President Trump today announced the US officially recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and initiated the process of enabling the US embassy to move there from Tel Aviv.
What’s wrong with that?
As former Ambassador to Israel Dan Kurtzer explained this morning on NPR, Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. It has been for almost 70 years and will continue to be. No one I know doubts the facts.
But the status of Jerusalem is in dispute: we don’t know its ultimate borders, whether some of it may some day be part of a Palestinian state, and there is no agreement on how it will in the future be governed. Trump’s move ignores these facts.
More importantly, it tilts the playing field, once again, in Israel’s direction. Trump offered nothing to the Palestinians besides platitudes. He might have said the US could envisage their capital also in Jerusalem, presumably in the eastern part of the city that is majority Palestinian. He might have limited what he said about Israel’s capital to the western portion of the city, where all the Israeli institutions he mentioned are located. He might have suggested in some other way that the US has an evenhanded view and will act as an honest broker in trying to resolve the ongoing disputes.
He didn’t. While advocating moderation, tolerance, and reasoned debate, Trump essentially aligned himself with extremist Americans and Israelis, who see no reason to accommodate Palestinian interests or interest in having a state of their own. Trump still wants, he says, to facilitate a lasting peace. He even says it with unusual passion and conviction. But what he has done makes compromise more difficult, not less.
How will the Muslim world react? Some fear violence. Certainly there will be demonstrations against what Trump has done. And demonstrations in the Middle East all too often result in violence. But a lot of Arabs have other things to worry about these days besides the Palestinians, who were already convinced Trump wasn’t going to do anything good from their point of view. A few rocket launches may satisfy some.
The people most aroused and likely to indulge in violence are the Iranians and Sunni extremists (especially Al Qaeda and the Islamic State). The elite Iranian Revolutionary Guards are not known as the Al Quds (Jerusalem) force for nothing. While Trump claims to be leading a campaign against both, his move on Jerusalem will inspire his adversaries. Look for them to invent symbolic, likely violent, acts against Israel and the US.
Hard to imagine any other significant government will follow Trump’s lead. The Europeans are dead set against it, as they rightly view it as making peace more difficult to negotiate, not easier. The gap that has opened between the US and our European allies on the Iran nuclear deal will widen. The Gulf Arabs, some of whom Trump and the Israelis have been courting as allies against Iran, will find themselves hamstrung and unable to move further in that direction.
Trump is in many ways his own worst enemy. Now he has made negotiations between Israel and Palestine more difficult, widened the rift with Europe, and hampered the alliance he hoped for against Iran. All in a single stroke.
PS: The slurring of his speech is noticeable. He is supposedly a teetotaler. Teeth don’t fit right?
PSS: Claudia Trevisan of the Brazilian daily O Estado de Sao Paolo was the first to get to me with questions. I answered;
A: It can be a broker as long as both sides agree it can be one. The Palestinians are saying no, but I’m not sure that will last.
Q: The president has said it is not prejudging the outcome of boundaries and the future status of Jerusalem. Can this nuance reduce the impact of the announcement?
A: It’s better than not saying it, but I don’t think it mitigates much.
Q: Can this decision help in any way help the peace process?
A: I don’t think so. It is more likely to kill it, at least for the time being.
Q: Do you expect an increase of violence in the region and of terrorist acts against the US as a consequence of the decision?
A: I don’t like to predict an increase in violence, since then people start feeling they have to fulfill the prophecy. But both violence in the region and against the US are possible.