Dr. Nathan Brown, Philip J. Crowley, and Dr. Shibley Telhami
Thank you all for coming to today’s panel: Trump’s Foreign Policy Position on Palestine and the Middle East. Before we start, can you please silence or put your cell phones on vibrate. We have the window open because it’s a little bit warm in here, so apologies if you hear the buses going by. Our speakers will try to speak into the microphones.
I am Samirah Alkassim, and I am the Program Manager here at the Jerusalem fund. We are happy to have with us today distinguished speakers Dr. Nathan Brown, Philip J. Crowley, and Dr.Shibley Telhami– who will examine and help us anticipate the foreign policy positions of the new president Donald Trump with regard to Palestine and the Middle East. Trump has been in the presidential office now two weeks and already the synopsis for this panel is outdated. Among the many issues related to our subject today are his campaign promise to relocate the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. His appointment of David Friedman, a pro-settlement lawyer with no foreign policy experience, as US ambassador to Israel — I meant that as well –last week. Netanyahu, due to arrive in the US next week for a meeting with Trump, announced more settlement construction in the west bank. While the Trump administration has stated recently that this is not necessarily constrictive to the peace process–this is all very confusing. A vehicle concern is the recent radical executive order banning entry of Muslim citizens and dual nationals from seven Muslim majority countries that is likely to reach the supreme court, as well as the strike in Yemen and the threats to Iran. Our panelists will discuss these issues in more, while examining the widespread regional and global effects Trump’s administration will bring. But first let me give you the biographies of our speakers.
Dr. Nathan Brown is a professor of Political Science and International Affairs and Director of the Institute for Middle East Studies as well as Director of the Middle East Studies Program at George Washington University. From 2013 to 2015, he was President of the Middle East Association–the academic association for scholars studying in the region. In 2013, Dr.Brown was named a Guggenheim Fellow. Four years earlier he was named a Carnegie Scholar by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. For the 2009-2010 academic year, he was a fellow at the Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Philip J –or (P.J)– Crowley, is professor of practice and distinguished fellow at the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communications at George Washington University, after serving a long career in the U.S. Department of State. He is a specialist on national security and from 2011- 2012 he was a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress where he authored detailed analyses on security issues including Safe At Home —a national security strategy to protect the American homeland, improve national preparedness and rebuild the US standing in the world.
Last but not least, Dr. Shibley Telhami is the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development and the Director of the University of Maryland critical issues poll. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His best selling book, The Stakes: America and the Middle East, was selected by Foreign Affairs as one of the top five books on the Middle East in 2003. His recent book, The World Through Arab Eyes: Arab Public Opinion and the Reshaping of the Middle East, was published in 2013. Dr. Telhami was selected by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, along with the New York Times, as one of the “great immigrants” for 2013. So now, I believe we will start with Dr. Nathan Brown
Dr. Nathan Brown: Thank you very much for having me, this is a great panel to be a member of. I was delighted to be asked to join it, primarily because the next speaker, Crowley has a wealth of practical experience, next speaker Telhami always has fantastic data– so what do I have to offer? Neither experience nor data. What I thought I would offer –that’s why I asked to go first– vague impressions and perhaps a broader perspective, and so that’s what I am going to try and give. Essentially if the task today is to try and figure out what the trump administration is likely to deliver in the Middle East generally, in terms of policy and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict specifically, I have got a two part answer to that question. The first part is I don’t know, and the second part is it doesn’t matter that I don’t know because I am not sure that the question matters quite as much and that might be the more controversial part of what I have to say.
The first part, let me explain why I think it is particularly difficult and let me mention a few things about this administration and how it’s come in and how it is already operated. One thing just to notice –and this is no news to anybody– is just the extremely pugnacious tone, and we’re not just talking about the president himself, but some people around him. You have an ambassador to Israel who has got a record of making, perhaps I would say very strong, even deeply offensive statements about people who disagree with him. In this kind of atmosphere I think it’s difficult to think analytically when you have so many verbal fireworks and bombs being set off, and that makes it difficult– it’s sort of trying to think about traffic patterns while you’re listening to two people engage in some sort of road rage exchange.
The second reason is just plain unpredictability and the conventional wisdom in this town has morphed. First it was ‘you have to take trump seriously but not literally’ and then with the executive order the newest convention seems to be ‘no, he is doing what he said he was going to do’. I don’t think that is actually right , I think he is doing some things but this man has said so many things. It is not clear which of them he is going to focus on and what it actually means in practice. So, I don’t think it is just a matter of saying he is going to do exactly what he said was going to do at the same time he issued the executive order. On immigration, he gave a separate interview with FOX news. When it was asked about moving the embassy to Jerusalem and his answer was extremely clear, ” I don’t want to talk about that”. So what will happen? I don’t know, but it’s certainly clear to me that this is somebody who, yes, said a number of things- some of which he may do and some of which he may not.
A third thing to know is that — and this is actually where I am going to be interested in hearing the other panelists — the administration is still not in place. You have a White House that’s able to take some kind of action. There seems to be people in there who are deliberately taking action before the system is fully in place. So questions like, what happens when the full administration when cabinet secretaries are all in place and doing their jobs, when people at the level right below the cabinet secretaries are doing their jobs? What kind of processes are in place? Who is going to have a role? I think an awful lot of that is not yet settled and to extrapolate from the first two weeks outward, that is one possible outcome but one can imagine all different kinds of ways in which this administration will work. Bureaucratically and politically that could change very much some time soon.
So those are some of the reasons why it’s very difficult to say. There are some clear patterns of ways in which the administration has come in and some clear themes in which it has drawn, and I just want to point to a couple of them and why they still give us much less guidance and might seem to be the case.
Number one, and this is what a striking foreign policy as a whole, if you look at the world order since the second World War, one thing that the United States has done, sometimes ambivalently and sometimes imperfectly, but it has generally worked very assiduously to construct a series of institutions, ways of doing things multilaterally and diplomatically. People may forget the United Nations was in large part an American creation, international financial institution, it’s the World Bank and the IMF, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. It’s a whole host of organizations, institutions, and ways of doing business internationally to make it possible to do things multilaterally. Then again, the United States has sometimes been ambivalent about, but it has had a large say in constructing and still in contributing and operating. This is a president who seems to come in with a very sharp inclination towards working bilaterally. One way to understand, for instance, is the way that he is now presenting his promise that Mexico will pay for the wall, what he seems to be indicating is there is a bilateral Mexican-American relationship. We will do this by essentially putting it on the table and when we are negotiating and renegotiating that relationship, we will do so in such a way that the United States will be compensated. This is a very different way than the United States has worked economic relations in this hemisphere, really for the past couple of decades or so. It is just a very different way of doing business, working bilaterally. The interesting thing though, is when you get to the Middle East. The thing that is striking to me, when I look at the recent conflicts, Arab-Israeli conflicts certainly, but now Syria, Yemen and so on, is this is a region that is extremely weak in these multilateral institutions. Even during the Cold War for instance, the height of the American-Soviet rivalry, there were structured ways that the various parties, the two alliances had of dealing internally and then with each other. When you look at something like Syria, one thing that is interesting is the extent to which diplomatic-multilateral processes, when they are called for, have to be jerry-rigged and work very badly. To come in with this hostility to multilateral-ism in the Middle East,it may have less impact there then it does with — for instance— on trade relations within the Western hemisphere or with American-European relations. It is a very strong theme with this president, but it may have less impact in the Middle East than elsewhere.
The second thing, this is something the President is very clear on, it was in his inaugural address, one of his public spokesmen on the National Security Council has highlighted specific addresses in which Trump has talked about the necessity to eliminate radical Islamic terrorism. This is a very clear theme. This is an administration, some members of which pride themselves on this strategic vision and when they articulate a strategic vision that is relevant to the world and certainly relevant to the Middle East, that is what keeps on coming up and yet, it is not quite clear what it means. It’s not quite clear what it will mean in practice. It does seem to indicate a conviction that the United States is in a civilizational battle. If you look at Trump’s speech once that is now sort of highlighted as a policy address, he talked about — among other things — the extent to which majorities in many Muslim societies favor the idea of execution for apostasy. What this seems to indicate is that the suspicion on some people’s parts, that radical Islamist terrorism is really a synonym for Islam, is something that some people in this administration would probably embrace. Others, I think, would fight back very hard against. We don’t really know quite what this phrase means. It does seem to suggest a heightening of the security aspects of American policy in the Middle East. Really, a turn away from issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, certainly the attention is drawn much less there. Again, probably embracing a way of understanding problems in the region that previous administrations, republican and democrat, very sharply resisted of essentially trying to understand this in civilizational terms. What does this amount to overall? I will simply quote a colleague of mine at GW, not professor Crowley, a different one. Mark Lynch, actually a former student of Shibley’s, who described sort of the overall attitude, a phrase that I think is particularly ept one of, “belligerent minimalism.” One of which, in a sense, the United States is identifying only a few core areas of national interest to defend but, doing so in a belligerent tone. We don’t know yet what will exactly go beyond tone. What does that mean for the Israeli-Palestinian dispute? This is where I’m saying, I’m not sure it means that much.
What we have seen is, and this is where I will be perhaps a little more controversial, over the past decade or more, I would say would be ineffectual flailing in the context of a peace process, that was created in the eighties and nineties, and I think has some viability in that time, but to my mind died probably in the mid two-thousands. Probably around the time of the Palestinian elections of 2006. It died for all different kinds of reasons but, what the United States has done, when it has made efforts on this issue, has been largely in that context. What I see now, is essentially an administration that comes in with, certainly some signs of hostility to some of the elements of that, but without any clear vision and also with a determination, articulated a couple of times — I’m not sure with any seriousness or policy content— of picking up this issue. I think the results are likely to be even less ineffectual then in the past. I think that actually, in a sense, it would mean an awful lot less now than it would have meant over a decade ago, when there was a viable peace process to abandon.
My own sense of where the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is that it has metastasized. It was a conflict that was amenable to a diplomatic process in the 1990’s. It is not today. It is a generational struggle between two societies. These societies themselves are not all that well. So even to talk about them as if they were two discrete entities that are dealing with each other, I think, no longer captures it. In a sense, we are back to a phase of Palestinian-Israeli relations or of, I would say, social and political relations in the territory of mandatory Palestine. That is much more now a social battle, a generational battle, to some extent an ideological battle, and it is one which does not lend itself simply to political will, the political actors, the leadership, public opinion and all these dimensions. It is simply not one in which some sort of concerted diplomatic push, getting everybody back to Camp David, or something like that, is going to deliver anything. As analysts, I think it probably makes an awful lot more sense to focus on developments within these societies. Ways in which, I think, a younger generation of Palestinian activists are just fundamentally different and checked out of the questions and the structures and the answers of the past. One in which is the Israeli political spectrum has shifted in some important ways and it makes sense to take a much longer perspective. Not worry about what the administration said last week but, worry much more about how a rising generation of people who inhabit this region are going to understand and act upon that understanding in this conflict. Thank you.
Dr. Shibley Telhami: Thanks so much for hosting us. I am really happy to be on this panel with Nathan and P.J, two people I highly respect and admire on this issue and many others. So thanks for joining me. What I’d like to do is to start by maybe situating what Trump is in the context of what America is a little bit, and certainly American public opinion. I want to start with that because I know that on one level, Trump doesn’t seem to care about public opinion, he actually said so. He in fact said that all polls — yesterday he was quoted as saying — all polls that disagree with him essentially are fake polls. And so, at one level he really takes a positions as if public opinion doesn’t matter. But, I’ve never seen a president of the United States who cared more about public opinion because everything about him is a response to how people perceive him, everything, and you could see he can’t let it go. So, on some level it looks like he doesn’t care, but another deep level, he actually cares really deeply. Perhaps, the president who feels less legitimate than most others and really is looking for approval more than we realize. So, I would caution against interpreting his posture as someone who doesn’t care about public opinion, he cares deeply about public opinion.
I want to say something about what the public is on this issue. It is obvious, I think, for all of us who have been studying this both in the context of American politics and foreign policy that Trump doesn’t mandate on issues. I mean that should be obvious, that the fact that he got elected — even who embraced him — didn’t necessarily support his position on more major issues and certain issues related to the Middle East. That should be obvious even from the primary numbers. Now, he is our president, he was elected through an Electoral College system, and he is there. But when we talk about public opinion it’s important to remember that 46% of Americans voted for him. He didn’t get the majority of the public, and his numbers have declined and his popularity has declined since he was elected. But more centrally than that really, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that his election wasn’t an embrace of his positions. He has a core support — hard to know exactly, maybe a third of Americans — who probably embrace him on issues, but about the 15-16% additional vote that he got were mostly people who are rolling the dice. People who wanted to change the system, people who wanted to see a disrupter. In our poll, just two weeks before the election at the University of Maryland — our University of Maryland critical issues poll, two thirds of Americans, democrats or republicans, said the system is rigged — they agreed with him. Over 90% wanted to see profound change to the american system, a majority wanted to see revolutionary change, not incremental change. So they saw him as a disrupter, whether some gambled on him. But when you look at the polling on issues throughout the whole year, in fact, actually people walked away from him but when you look at the polling on issues throughout the whole year, in fact, actually people walked away from him on issues. One of the things that we’ve done over that year, I did four polls from November 2015 all the way to November 2016, the last poll was right after the election. When you look at how people reacted for example, to his rhetoric on Islam and Muslims, the harsher the rhetoric got, the more favorable the American public’s view Islam and Muslims became. Progressively, in every single one of the polls from November 2015 to November 2016, the majority of the American public’s views of Islam as a religion and Muslims as a people has actually improved over the year, not went the other way around. As a direct reaction to the ban, just as we see now with people going on the street. When you have the ban and people say, “well people who didn’t care about his issues at all, to go out there and demonstrating to say I am with Islam, Muslims or “We are all Muslim,” that’s obviously a bigger issue than just caring or reinterpreting Islam or Muslims because it’s a bigger issue at stake in terms of civil rights and liberties and qualities and things that Americans hold deeply.
So, I think there was an actual reaction that went the other way, and that is true even on the Israel-Palestine questions. When you look at, particularly those issues, yes America is divided. All the polls show that America is deeply divided, particularly across partisan lines. The difference between democrats and republicans is over fifty percentage points. I mean, that is just unheard of in the same country. So yes, America is divided but more people overall are actually against Trump’s positions on issues related to Islam and Muslims and on issues related to Israel and Palestine because, while the democrats have shifted far more away, the republicans went to the right. So, democrats have shifted more to the left, then republicans shifted to the right and independents have swayed slightly more towards the democrats than towards republicans on those issues. What we’ve seen, essentially, is really kind of the opposite of what people anticipate from heated rhetoric or even from what we saw happening on our soil, terrorism conducted falsely in the name of Islam. Whether it was in San Bernardino or Orlando, where I actually did a poll two weeks after Orlando. Where American attitudes towards Islam and Muslims actually improved rather than the other way around because people rejected the notion that this was Islamic terrorism and went the other way around. So, I want you to keep that in mind. However, this is not to underestimate that his rhetoric has empowered and fueled more intense feelings among his core supporters that are a minority in America. That is consequential. Both for mobilizing them and for some of the unfortunate racism that we see occasionally coming out by fringe groups. Still, fringe groups have been empowered undoubtedly but, that’s not where the public is. That’s not where the majority of the public is.
On Israel-Palestine, we see the same story. First, America is deeply divided. Republicans and democrats are on opposite ends. Overwhelming majority of democrats support UN resolution against the settlements or UN resolution that would recognize Palestine as a state. Overwhelming majority of democrats but, a majority of republicans oppose it. On settlements, sixty percent of democrats support imposing sanctions or even more serious measures on Israel over settlements, as of the November 2016. A majority of republicans oppose it. But, when you look at what happened in the shift overall in the public opinion, it shifted more towards democrats than to republicans. You had an increase of about twelve parentage points across the board, in that year, in favor of sanctions among the majority of Americans taken place. So, Americans are not with Trump on issues. Keep that in mind. This is not where America is. This is not what America is embracing, even among those who elected him only some do, but not all those who elected him are embracing him. So, where does that leave us? Let me just say, just as my colleague Nathan started with, it is really unpredictable. We’re in uncharted waters, we know that because we have never seen a president like Donald Trump. I think we’re starting with a situation where we also don’t know about who he listens to. Usually, we have a pretty good idea by the time a president is in office. So, we are in the dark and I think we have to keep that in mind. Even when someone says, “I’m pro something” , like he says he’s pro-Israel or he’s pro-peace, or he’s pro-even handedness, what does that mean? We don’t know. He says, particularly when you take into account this is a man who also says, “no one is better for women than he is,” he’s pro women. So, take that for what it means. I don’t think you can actually interpret that, you know, you can’t take things at face value. You have to analyze them.
So, where does that leave him? If he is catering to his core constituency, then on the Israel-Palestine question, he’s got a lot of support for being extremely pro-Benjamin Netanyahu. There’s no question about it. That’s where the republican party is. In my public opinion polls, in a question that I ask, “whom among the world leaders do you admire the most,” an open-ended question, “national or international leaders,” republicans identified Netanyahu as number one, even slightly above Ronald Reagan, and especially among evangelicals. You can see that in the debates when we had the republican primaries where Israel was mentioned more times than any other country and Netanyahu was mentioned more than any other leader in the world. In the republican debates not in the democratic debates, because that was important to the core constituency. Now, who is his core constituency, is another question because there too we have a lot of confusion about who are the people that constitute the core support for Donald Trump. There’s no question that through all of the campaign, through the end of the campaign, and now as president, he has identified evangelicals as his core constituency. In fact, he made a deal with them and it is, if you look at it historically, it seems to be incredibly puzzling. This is not a man who is know to be religious. Is not a man who is known to be evangelical and there were candidates in the mix who are really counting on evangelical support because they frame their lives and the careers as being evangelicals themselves and created connections. The way he did it is by understanding, and this is the cleverness of Donald Trump, don’t underestimate the man, obviously a lot of people underestimated him, don’t underestimate him. He goes for the priorities of people; what makes them tick beyond the surface. I think with evangelicals, the deal he made with Jerry Falwell Jr., he told me this personally in an interview, he feels because he didn’t give them that he lost their support, the evangelical rights support over this issue. So, he is giving them that and the Israeli issue, they care about the Israeli issue, they rank it high in their priorities– it’s another story as to why they do it– but I think they care about taxes more and I think he has already given them the tax issue but he is going with the rhetoric on the Israel issue.
Now, I was just flashed that I need to finish quickly, so let me just make two other points. One is, who are the people that influence him in this administration?–I think probably P.J will talk about that a little bit more–and that we are in the dark on this one, because he does have people. Yes, like David Friedman or yes like Jared Kushner, who obviously are also pro-settlement apparently. We have people like Bannon for sure, but then we also have people like Tillerson, like Mattis, who are actually relatively mainstream in american politics. And he certainly has friends in the Middle East, it’s not just the Netanyahu, he knows the King of Jordan well. I just came back from Egypt to speak on Egyptian/U.S relations in the era of Trump. Certainly, the Egyptian government is somewhat optimistic about the possibility of relations with him. He’s got business people in the Middle East, he’s been doing business with who he feels is sensitive to their issue. He’s got some friends here, including Tom Barrack, who’s of Middle East origin who has probably a different perspective in the mix. So, it is really hard to know who ultimately will influence him on this issue, if any, but here is what I would predict; Number one, this will not be a priority issue for him because of all the other stuff that is coming in– it has not been a priority issue for America anyway– unless something happens, like a war or moving the embassy to Jerusalem actually takes place and then we have a crisis. But barring that, it’s just not a priority issue for him. Second, anyone that’s hoping for a breakthrough, I think is imagining this, and seeing some hope in a statement like ‘building settlements may not be helpful’ — yes, of course if you were expecting it he was going to support settlements 100%, maybe that mitigates it– but that is not going to give you an opportunity to move forward, it is a political statement and if you think about what Nathan, I think correctly said, the peace process as we know it had died really probably in 2000, that even Obama– and you can’t imagine he is going to be like Obama in this issue — with eight years couldn’t move it, do you think that if he is going to do half Obama, he is going to actually move it? It’s just not going to happen.
So then what is the question on the table? The question is how much damage will take place and that’s really the question, how much damage will take place. I would say that there are two issues of damage that we could talk about. One is specific concrete things on the ground, that is the degree to which american government will be permissive of massive changes on the ground. Yesterday, there was an Israeli law for land grab essentially allowing the government to take over private Palestinian land and that is a huge traumatic change, and then there is no push back and obviously that becomes a law, then it is hard to push back against settlers when they start doing that because it becomes a Law, so it opens up possibilities. What happens in Jerusalem? Even without moving the embassy to Jerusalem, the embassy in Jerusalem is a symbolic issue, difficult one. He may not do it, if he does it there may be crisis. But even more, whether there will be construction in East Jerusalem that actually makes it impossible to ultimately have a Palestinian state. So that is a real issue, how permissive the administration will be in allowing these changes on the ground to take place. The second thing that I think is at risk is a shift in paradigm. what happens is it doesn’t matter what trump himself believes, we don’t really know what he believes. What happens is people get empowered by the tone he sets, this happened also in the bush administration after 9/11. Bush himself may not have been anti-Muslim or believed in clash of civilization, he took political positions, but he empowered groups that perpetuated a different paradigm and pulled a rug from the underneath the mainstream on these issues, he shifted the debate, shifted assumptions, shifted the conversations, all of that. We could see here, and we already see signs of it, of groups empowered by trump, assuming that he is not going to push back–none is going to push back. Therefore, start pushing back on different things like, it is not an occupation in the WestBank, we shouldn’t support a Palestinian state, support annexation of blocks or settlements. So we could see a real dramatic push back against existing assumptions, even about settlements in the mainstream by groups who would feel empowered unless there is a push back that comes from Trump himself or people around him.
Now, here is the thing I want to end with though, and it’s really an optimistic note– an optimistic note not about Trump but about America. I say this because of what I talked about earlier, that during that harsh year in our campaign from November 2015 – November 2016, with all the horrific discourse that we witnessed here in America and all that tax that happened on our soil in the name of Islam, American people actually went the other way. They didn’t sway with the pressure. Now, one interpretation I had at that time, and I think still is my interpretation, is there were a couple reasons why that happened. One is that we were in the middle of a campaign and because this issue was tied to the nature and identity of politics that is associated with a particular candidate and particular party. The other party had every incentive to create a counter paradigm and to push back 100%, and to say ‘no, Islam is not about terrorism, terrorism is not about Islam’. We had a president of USA, who is a democrat who also pushed back. So that pushback, that paradigm was created helped create a different balance to the extremist few that were coming into the debate. In fact, it outweighed that view. Now, what happens when you have now no election year, we are not in election anymore, and you have no democratic president to weigh into the conversation, and people may not have an incentive to go defend the existing paradigm. When someone says it is not an occupation, who is going to spear head the fight that it is an occupation? When you say Islam is terrorism, who’s going to spear head the fight that it is not anymore when there is no political game at stake? I would’ve said we are going to see a reversal just 3/4 weeks ago, because of that, because we are no longer in a campaign, now I am not so sure because I’ve seen what has happened after the election. People have mobilized, the social media has been great, the people are pushing back against racism, and if you were here and joined the women’s march the day after the inauguration I think you get the sense of what is happening in America and I think you’re likely to see more. So, I think there will be a fightback, there will be a push back, and truths and facts will matter against alternative facts– thank you very much.
Philip J. Crowley:Thank you very much, I certainly want to join in expressing my gratitude for the invitation and honored to share the stage with these two scholars. Whenever Shibley speaks there is insight. Nathan Brown and I both have released books recently, that could be viewed as two sides of the same coin. I shamelessly have brought a copy of my book, Red Line: American Foreign Policy in a Time of Fractured Politics and Failing State. At the heart of Nathan’s books is the question, “does politics matter in the Arab world?” At the heart of my book is the question, “does politics matter in the formulation and execution of American foreign policy?” The answer is, “yes.” The nomination of Steve Bannon to the National Security Council may raise the influence of politics to an uncomfortable level. But, the idea that politics stops at the water’s edge or at the door of the White House situation room has always been a myth. That’s not a revelation to those of you in the audience that have long recognized the significant political linkages to America’s approach to the Middle East. To a point that Shibley raised, “who will Trump listen to,” it’s a very critical question. I certainly hope he will listen to Jim Mattis, who I’ve known for twenty years. We were together at the Pentagon. Rex Tillerson, who I think has turned out to be a pretty inspired choice. They both come from the corporate world but Tillerson grew up inside an institution and understands the importance to teamwork far more than Trump, as an insurgent. They may help him develop stronger connections to the government that he is happy to criticize but actually leads. But, it is an open question. The recent decent memo tells you the depth of concern within the government about the policies that Trump is pursuing and yet, that decent memo to a guy who,like Nixon, has an enemies list may well retard the ability of someone like Rex Tillerson to expand his influence within the Trump national security team. I’m old enough to have had direct experience with six presidential transitions here in Washington and if there is one area of potential reassurance, it is that it does take time for any administration to establish its stride. There is a learning curve, clearly the learning curve will be steeper for this particular administration.
Until now, I feared that we would base our discussion on campaign and transition rhetoric without the benefit of specific statements or actions by the Trump white house, but then came Feb 2nd where the White House expressed concern about the Israeli settlement expansion going too far already undermining the very tenuous prospects of a future negotiation. That statement reflecting long standing U.S concerns was paired with a very strident statement by national security adviser Michael Flynn, regarding Iran’s missile activity, and a day later the United States announced a new round of sanctions against Iran. All of a sudden, the real world began to intrude into Trump world, and at least for the moment the response seemed to reflect foreign policy continuity where given his unconventional candidacy up until then they have been sharp divergences regarding walls, bans, trades, and alliances–you know, not to mention Russia. The new President has talked on the phone with leaders from the Gulf. He met on the emergence of the national prayer with the King Abdullah. We will certainly learn more over the next week when Israeli prime minister Netanyahu comes to Washington. The tone of that relationship has certainly changed, how much that actually influences events in the region remains to be seen. You know, certainly the Netanyahu coalition believes there has been a substantive change in Israel’s favor. Obviously, one major known-unknown is what the Trump administration will do with the location of the U.S embassy from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem. He has wisely pushed the issue to the side for the time being, no doubt it will come up during whatever press event the President and Netanyahu do, assuming the President is still speaking to the media. What is perhaps most surprising about the White House statement regarding Iran was the expression of interest in reaching a Middle East peace agreement. Aside from the interest in making a historic deal and the supreme self confidence about his skills, it’s unclear on what basis the Trump administration believes a deal is actually feasible, given the dismal political dynamic in the region of the moment and the absence of any personal rapport between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abu Mazen. While resolution 2334 certainly reflected rising international concern regarding the treatment of events on the ground, the visceral reaction in Israel and the condemnation by the President-Elect, at the time, and congressional leaders from both parties, call into question the basis on which the Trump administration believes the United States can play a decisive role under current circumstances. The lack of progress by Secretary of State John Kerry was certainly not based on a lack of effort or a lack of ambition. Nathan believes that the peace process is dead, that is certainly possible. I would prefer to say that it is in a deep coma with very few signs of life. It is not likely that it is going to come out of that coma any time soon.
Now, some believe that the Obama administration made early mistakes that handicapped the process; placing too much emphasis on the settlement freeze and not enough emphasis on Israel’s security, particularly as the regional security situation deteriorated starting in 2011. The first is probably true, in retrospect. Although, the constant drum beat in George Mitchell’s early engagement with regional leaders in 2009. The second is fleeting. The depth of the strategic relationship between Israel and the United States intensified during Obama’s eight years. It is probably fair to say that Obama failed to reassure the Israeli population, at a political level, that the United States would do what is necessary to ensure Israel’s security. The Trump administration may attempt to provide those reassurances, but Netanyahu’s governing coalition is not wired for negotiation and compromise. Yesterday’s Knesset vote regarding the retroactive appropriation of Palestinian land in the West Bank certainly underscores that. The reality, as we know, the Palestinian side is not unified either. I think the best we can hope for is separate conversations aimed at preventing matters from deteriorating further. It’s hard to see how Trump’s travel ban directed at seven regional countries will generate meaningful political support for any Trump regional initiative.
Regarding Iran, what was noticeable was that the White House went to lengths to remind that the sanctions did not violate the Iran deal. The renewed sanctions directed at Iran will be reassuring to the region, but it is unclear what tools the Trump administration has to impose costs on Iran without increasing tensions to a dangerous level. While the Trump administration has a series of discrete actions it wishes to take in the region, it has not yet fit those pieces into a picture that provides a sustainable regional strategy. Nonetheless, what he has done thus far, consistent with his campaign rhetoric, suggests that Trump, like Obama, will try to craft a foreign policy consistent with what he sees as his political mandate. Shibley makes a very good point; whether or not he actually has a mandate, he is going to govern as if he does. He’s going to hold on to this agenda and we are seeing with the ban, if he fails, he will be pointing a finger of blame at the congress or the courts. Whether or not he has a mandate, it will shape his actions just as it did with his predecessor. Obama’s mandate was to wind down America’s wars and avoid new ones. Those political boundaries certainly shaped Obama’s approach to challenges such as Syria and Libya. That skepticism of costly interventions was certainly prevalent in the 2016 campaign as well. Obama said a number of times that nation building begins at home. There is not a lot of great distance from that narrative and “Make America Great Again,” at least as far as rhetoric is concerned. Trump does not start out with great regional ambitions but, it is worth noting that the most dramatic changes to American foreign policy, if you think about the last 15 to 25 years, have come via external events; the Iran Revolution, the end of the Cold War, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, 9/11, the Arab Spring, the Islamic State. The U.S. invasion of Iraq was a self-inflicted wound, the ripple effects we are still feeling, not only regarding in the region itself but the United State’s role in it. Obama was accused of disengagement from the region, a perception driven by its desire to exit from Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time, it took an aggressive stand regarding the Arab Spring. Generally supporting the aspirations of the protesters over the establishment. Now, Palestine and Bahrain were notable exceptions. While I believe the charges of disengagement and certainly a charge of appeasement with Iraq are vastly overstated, there was a reallocation of political capital, there was a rebalance in Asia. On Wall Street this would be called value investing; shifting resources where there appears to be the potential for greater return. To be sure, geopolitics is different, particularly if you are the most influential country in the world, like any good investory there necessarily needs to be a regular review of assets. It will be interesting to see how the Trump administration, with its business savvy, views this dynamic and where to invest available geopolitical capital going forward.
While there is more conviction behind that rhetoric than we anticipated, he is in fact trying to do what he suggested on the campaign trail. I agree with what Nathan said about our mutual friend Mark Lynch, Trump’s ambitions in the Middle East, like Obama’s, are going to be measured. So, what does a Trump mandate look like? It is to defeat the Islamic State. It is to counteract the growing influence of Iran without getting into a military confrontation. It is not to transform the Middle East. It is not to impose military a solution in Syria. The United States may well step up its pace of activity in conflict countries such as Yemen and Libya. We saw the ambitious attempt to kill or capture the leader of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula, just in the last few days. But, the clearest message of the 2016 campaign was “no boots on the ground.” Trump may increase the level of air and special operations support to regional forces, but like Obama, he will rely on regional allies such as; Iraq, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, to regain territory from the Islamic State. There were some contradictions the plagued the Obama administration, those contradictions remain. Particularly regarding Turkish concerns support for the Syrian Kurds. The wild card is, how does the Trump administration respond to an external event such as a terrorist attack within the United States. In the White House’s world of alternative facts, none of the attacks contained on the list of terrorists incidents released last night would have been prevented by the ban on the seven regional countries. But when the first incident occurs in this country, whether we are talking about something like Orlando or something much smaller like the attempted bombings in New York and New Jersey last fall, that will result in a reshuffling of the strategic cards and precipitate a significant response, whether or not there is an overseas link. While the rhetorical differences will be noticeable between Obama and Trump, along with greater pressure in Iran and a relaxation of pressure on Israel, I anticipate there will be substantial continuity in U.S. foreign policy with regards to the Middle East. Now you may consider that good news, we can have the conversation here in a moment. I’ll conclude with an important caveat. Continuity does not mean coherence. Continuity does not mean the absence of surprise. There is a learning curve, and the strange call with the Australian Prime Minister could be one of those learning moments where the White House recognizes that, sooner rather than later, it needs to establish regular order and genuine policy coordination. The sooner they do that, the better. The President has indicated that he values unpredictability. He is the wild card in this equation. That, actually, is probably not going to change. I look forward to your questions.