The Donald Trump administration’s new National Security Strategy has made waves for its unexpected emphasis on alliances, tough talk on trade, and focus on homeland protection. But few have noticed, buried on page 49, a paragraph that marks a sea change in decades of American strategic thinking about the Middle East:
Along with last week’s declaration that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, Trump has stuck a blow for realism in the sometimes upside-down world of U.S. foreign-policy thinking. He’s also taken a swipe at two of his predecessors: Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama.
Neither of those former presidents actually came out and said that Israel was the cause of all the Middle East’s problems. But they both based their regional diplomacy on the assumption.
In 2006, while promoting a book that likened Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians with South African apartheid, Carter opened a window on his real thoughts. “The heart and mind of every Muslim is affected by whether or not the Israel-Palestine issue is dealt with fairly,” he told an interviewer. He added that the U.S. is hated by “former close friends” such as Egypt and Jordan, “because we won’t do anything about the Palestinian plight.”
This is what the American-Israeli scholar Martin Kramer calls “linkage” — the myopic tendency to see Israel as a wrench in the wheel of America’s Arab policy. In that interview, Carter even called it the “linkage fact.” But, to be fair, the concept didn’t originate with him.
It goes back at least to the end of World War II. In 1945, the State Department sent newly inaugurated President Harry Truman a memo warning of “continual tenseness in the situation in the Near East largely as a result of the Palestine question.” State’s recommendation was to avoid Zionist activists and think about America’s long-term interests.
Truman (like Trump) had a low opinion of expert advice. In 1947, he ordered a reluctant U.S. ambassador vote “yes” in the United Nations General Assembly on the creation of the Jewish state. The contrary assessment among the diplomats Truman derided as the “striped pants boys” was, I think it is fair to say, misguided.
And Jimmy Carter wasn’t a better prophet. Even though there is no Palestinian state, the U.S. is not hated by Jordan and Egypt; on the contrary, it is allied with their governments — and Israel — in the fight against Iran.
Carter also overestimated the Muslim commitment to Palestine. When President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey called an emergency summit of the Organization of Islamic States to protest Trump’s Jerusalem decision, more than half of the invited heads of state and prime ministers didn’t bother to show up.
While Carter’s successors tended to have a more nuanced view of the region, Obama was a true Carterite. In 2008, in the midst of his first presidential campaign, he traveled to the Middle East and met with Jordan’s King Abdullah. “If we can solve the Israeli-Palestinian process, then that will make it easier for Arab states and Gulf States to support us when it comes to issues like Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said upon returning. “We’ve got to have an overarching strategy recognizing that all these issues are connected.”
King Abdullah had a vested interest in saying such things — more than half his citizens are themselves Palestinians, and he wouldn’t mind if many of them returned to the other side of the Jordan River. Obama was not necessarily naive. The king told him what he wanted to hear, and he left the region as he arrived, a believer that peace and war in the Middle East form a matrix whose epicenter is the holy land.
After taking office, Obama took linkage to a whole new level. In an appearance with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he was asked if reining in Iran’s nuclear ambitions was a necessary precursor to reviving the peace process. “If there is a linkage between Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, I personally believe it actually runs the other way,” he replied. “To the extent that we can make peace with the Palestinians — between the Palestinians and the Israelis — then I actually think it strengthens our hand in the international community in dealing with a potential Iranian threat.”
There is no point in dwelling on Obama’s Middle Eastern missteps. But even after turning Iraq over to the tender mercies of the Islamic State, embracing the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, poisoning relations with Saudi Arabia, and stepping back from his Red Line to watch Syria disintegrate, he continued to imply that only Netanyahu’s stubbornness foiled his “overarching strategy.”
I doubt anyone would say that Trump is smarter than Carter or Obama. But he is far more realistic than either. He understands that there is no “Arab World” pining for justice, just a region of sovereign nations pursuing what they regard as their self-interest. As the new strategy says, the Arab states “have increasingly found common interests with Israel in confronting common threats.”
This assessment is followed by a plan of action: countering (unspecified) violent ideologies, buoying up the Gulf states, strengthening the U.S. strategic partnership with Iraq, seeking a settlement of the Syrian civil war that sets the conditions for refugees to return, neutralizing Iranian aggression, and, last on the list, “helping to facilitate a comprehensive peace agreement that is acceptable to both Israelis and Palestinians.”
Trump’s actual plan for what he calls “the ultimate deal” in the Holy Land is still a secret. But it is not likely that be any more generous to the Palestinians than what they have rejected in the past. As far as America is concerned, we in the Middle East are living in a new, unlinked generation.