Opinion |

Trump's Foreign Policy Chaos Is Putting Israel at Risk, but U.S. Jews Are in Denial

Some U.S. foreign policy theorists contend Trump's catastrophic foreign policy mess constitutes a coherent 'doctrine'. And too many American Jews, on Israel at least, are joining in the delusion

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie
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U.S. President Donald Trump, near an Israeli flag at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem May 23, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump, near an Israeli flag at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem May 23, 2017.Credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie

When it comes to the Trump administration’s foreign policy, we've entered an era of self-delusion. And American Jews are doing their share to contribute.

The President’s domestic policy is a blatant disaster. But at least here the bumbling incompetence is widely acknowledged, by left and right alike.

But the administration’s catastrophic approach to foreign policy is defended by a range of scholars and commentators who profess to find amidst the Trumpian chaos a plan, a purpose, and high-minded intentions, even though evidence for such things is negligible.

And American Jews—or some of them, at least—add to the problem by continuing to see in Trump a great and wise champion of Israel, even when his actions suggest the opposite.

Let’s take a look at how this works.

Professor Stephen Wertheim, writing in the New York Times, makes the argument for a 'Trump doctrine' that identifies America’s vital interests with the survival and expansion of "Western civilization."

According to Wertheim, Trump, like many Presidents before him, embraces the muscular assertion of American power and declares his intention to stamp out terrorism and defend the West. On balance: apparently a rather conventional restatement of America’s 20th century foreign policy.

Walter Russell Mead of the Hudson Institute also sees coherence and structure. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Mead argues that Trump, like Harry Truman after World War II, astutely manipulates public opinion to achieve his foreign policy goals. Truman wanted an activist, high-minded U.S. foreign policy but knew the best way to get it was by stoking fear - of global communism. Trump has focused on the fear of mass terror, rogue regimes, and globalization’s impact on American jobs to rally the people behind his commitment to global engagement.

An ultra-Orthodox man passes by a billboard welcoming U.S. President Donald Trump ahead of his visit, Jerusalem, May 19, 2017.Credit: Oded Balilty/AP

It's the job of theorists like them to detect and study "doctrines" that explain the workings of government. But the problem is that, in every respect, it is complete nonsense. There is no Trump doctrine.

There is no strategic, long-term thinking on foreign policy in the Trump administration. No consistent set of values that guides President Trump when he turns to foreign affairs. No predictable approach to foreign commitments upon which U.S. policy makers and American allies can depend. No presidential predecessor, historical experience, or American school of foreign policy thinking that inspires our current president and shapes his actions. His single most enduring foreign policy accomplishment has been to gut the State Department, leaving our diplomats forlorn, impotent, and demoralized.

In foreign policy, like in everything else, our President is a madman, and relentlessly unilateral. And there is also no coherent and stable pro-Israel policy that can make Jewish Americans confident of the Trump administration's support for the Jewish state.

Nonetheless, the belief in a supposed Trump doctrine is supported by many in the Jewish community, who see support for Israel at its very heart.

Jonathan Tobin, in the Jewish Week, argues that the Jewish voters who supported Trump in the election remain loyal to him because of what they see as "his strong tilt toward Israel." And Rob Eshman of the Jewish Journal contends that many Jewish leaders on the pro-Israel right, who would have given Obama "holy hell" for the exact same behavior Trump showcases, give the current president an unconditional pass.

I admit that the early days of the Trump administration offered a measure of hope. The President seemed anxious to be the architect of the “ultimate deal” between Israelis and Palestinians. And it seemed possible that his unpredictable style, so disruptive in the domestic realm, might shake up the parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict and move them in the direction of peace. Even if peace were not attainable, I thought, perhaps he could create arrangements that would promote stability and lower tensions in the region.

But none of that was to be. Progress on Middle East peace requires a focused president and an engaged Secretary of State. But Trump has the attention span of a 10-year-old, and Tillerson is out of his depth. And Jared Kushner, fending off the FBI and carrying a half dozen portfolios, is an inexperienced novice who will do no heavy lifting here.

US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands at the Israel museum in Jerusalem. May 23, 2017.Credit: Sebastian Scheiner/AP

And so why do the right-wing supporters of Israel insist on seeing Trump as benefactor and supporter of the Jewish state? It is very hard to say.

In many ways, Israel is particularly vulnerable now. Trump’s domestic antics have heightened American isolationism and diverted attention from vital international concerns. The administration has been mostly indifferent to recent terror against Israelis and to unrest on the Temple Mount. And most important by far, its decision to approve the Russian-sponsored cease-fire in Syria is potentially disastrous.

The Russians now have American approval – made with minimal Israeli input - to police Syrian territory immediately north of Israel’s border. What if Iranian or Hezbollah forces move toward the Golan and the Russians warn Israel not to respond? Can President Trump be relied upon to take Israel’s side? Anyone who thinks that Trump’s groveling to Putin has no impact on Israel is delusional.

No one knows what will happen at home in the U.S., whether Trump will finish his term, if Republicans will lose control of Congress, whether the administration will be tested by a critical international crisis.

But this we do know. We live in a diminished America, governed by a near-crazy President who seems to care more for his authoritarian buddies than for democratic norms and long-standing international commitments. The peace of the world is fragile, and every democratic ally of the United States is questioning whether America will meet its obligations.

Israel, dependent on American strength and standing, is at risk.

In the words of Senator Susan Collins’ hot mic comment about President Trump: "I’m worried."

Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Twitter: @EricYoffie

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