The ancient Chinese curse “May you live in interesting times” – which isn’t really Chinese – is coming true in front of our very eyes, and on a global scale. When the president of the United States within a matter of hours threatens North Korea with nuclear obliteration, the Palestinians with economic devastation, “Lyin’” Pakistan with cutting off aid and the media with a perverse White House awards ceremony for the most “dishonest and corrupt” journalists, there is no doubt that the world is witnessing a riveting thriller, the likes of which have not been seen before. If this will all end well, atheists will have to reconsider their disbelief in God.
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Donald Trump’s latest twitter-rage is a symptom, among other things, of his growing self-confidence. Passing the sweeping GOP tax reform boosted Trump’s standings on the domestic front while the riots in Iran and the conciliatory gestures that have accompanied Kim Jong Un’s threats in Pyongyang cast a positive light on his bellicose international posture. Trump, and not only he, can easily reach the conclusion that the extortionist-bully model of international affairs is seeing results. If Trump can claim credit for the safest aviation year on record even though he had nothing to do with it, he can certainly brag about how his threats have destabilized Iran and weakened North Korean resolve, in which he arguably played some role. For someone like Trump, the feeling that he has once again bested his jaundiced critics is like a shot of adrenaline. It compels him to go farther, to be more brazen, and, if pessimists are right, to turn more dangerous.
And if strong countries such as Iran and North Korea tremble at my roar, Trump will tell himself, who are these pathetic Palestinians, whom the world, especially the Arab world, has almost forgotten? With them, as someone who worships the strong and abuses the weak, Trump is at his most brutal. He not only poked a finger in their eye, now he’s demanding they say thank you as well. After unilaterally recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital without giving the Palestinians anything in return, Trump suddenly tweeted last night that, contrary to his previous statements, Jerusalem was no longer on the bargaining table at all. Then, together with his popular United States Ambassador to the UN Nikki Hailey, Trump launched another offensive, threatening Palestinians that if they don’t immediately return to a peace process led by a president who has just humiliated them repeatedly, he will strangle them and them and millions of their refugees by cutting off American assistance to the Palestinian Authority and to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA.
Trump is keeping only the second half of Teddy Roosevelt’s admonition to talk softly but carry a big stick. He is not only strutting around imperiously with a truncheon in his hands, he is threatening to use it if the world doesn’t behave nicely and his demands are not met. Trump is flouting the international code of conduct that has been in place since the end of World War II, at least in the West, with his public insults, his nuclear ultimatums, his willingness to wave an American ax over any unruly country and in his undisguised and unrepentant pledge to make America first, and everyone else be damned.
In Israel, as well as the United States, many believe that Trump’s is engaging in tough-guy tactics that he or his advisers will be able to control, but in Europe and around the world there is growing concern that Trump isn’t pretending to be a crazy leader as a sort of ploy that political scientists probe but that his brakes may truly not be functioning.
As someone who has devoted his life to making money, Trump views the world through the green prism of the dollar. As someone known for his ruthless and aggressive managerial style, Trump expects total obedience from everyone under him, including legislators, investigators and journalists, and total subservience from those who depend on him for their livelihood, from NATO to UNESCO, from Ramallah to Mexico City. Trump has threatened to cut off American economic oxygen to anyone not doing his bidding, along the lines of the famously anti-Semitic suggestion of High Commissioner Evelyn Barker who told British soldiers in Mandatory Palestine to “hit the Jews in their pockets.” For Trump, this modus operandi is appropriate in U.S. policy toward the entire world, with the possible exceptions of those unique strong leaders that Trump admires, from Russia’s Vladimir Putin, through China Xi Jinping to the murderous strongman of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte.
Trump believes the world only understands force, a principle that is doubly applicable to the helpless Palestinians and which is no doubt promoted by American right wingers and Evangelicals and endorsed by their ideological partners in Israel, from Benjamin Netanyahu on down. Perhaps Trump was surprised and embarrassed by the Palestinian decision to retaliate against his Jerusalem move with a diplomatic intifada, which is enjoying international support; in order to repress it, he is now trying to ram the new reality down their throats by threatening to harm the Palestinian government and Palestinian refugees.
Perhaps Trump honestly believes that the specter of economic strangulation will bring the Palestinians back to the negotiating table, but when one views his latest threats in conjunction with the Knesset laws passed this week that make it harder to negotiate Jerusalem, as well as the Likud’s endorsement of annexation, it’s hard to resist the suspicion that we are seeing a joint trans-Atlantic plot to derail the Palestinian authority and to erase the possibility of a two-state solution now or anytime in the future.
The question is whether Trump’s aggressive posture on the international stage, which is almost diametrically opposite to the one projected by his predecessor Barack Obama, is starting to show results, or whether it is like the man who jumps from a tall building and is asked through a window on the 6th floor how he’s feeling, and he answers “So far, so good.” Trump’s belligerent and slightly out of control dialogue with the world is only effective if it has its limits and as long as it doesn’t spur adversaries to behave in a similarly bellicose way.
If the North Koreans dismantle and the Iranians overthrow and the Palestinians behave nicely, Trump’s way of doing things will be vindicated, at least temporarily. If the opposite happens, if the U.S. gets dragged into escalating confrontations, the nuclear race speeds out of control and the Palestinians disintegrate, rebel or opt for Hamas or ISIS, then everyone will know that Trump’s gamble has failed and that Israel, first and foremost, will pay the price. You can rest assured, however, that both Trump and Netanyahu will pin the blame for the ensuing mayhem on leftists and the media rather than on their own recklessness.