Opinion

A Downed Israeli Jet and the U.S. Budget: Two Sides of a Failing Trump

The Trump administration is growing increasingly irrelevant because it has neither a coherent set of policies nor people competent to implement them. In Syria, Israel is going to share the price

Trump boards Air Force One
\ JONATHAN ERNST/ REUTERS

At first glance, there’s no obvious connection between the Israeli F-16 fighter jet shot down on Saturday and Trump’s 2019 budget released two days later.  

The downed jet symbolizes the growing risks and costs Israel faces confronting the Iranian menace in Syria. The Trump budget, for Israelis, is a far-off problem revolving around numbers and Beltway politics.

Yet the fact is, they both represent the same big problem for Israel.

A year in power, the Trump administration has proven itself incompetent and ineffective, and now it’s becoming irrelevant. Whether in Congress or Damascus, the president is no longer a player.

Guess who

The Trump budget has been excoriated for its huge deficit spending and cuts to social programs, but the real story is that it isn’t Trump’s budget at all. It’s the creature of deficit-hawk Mick Mulvaney, the part-time head of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (and head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau).

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu with US President Donald Trump in Davos, Switzerland, January 25, 2018
עמוס בן גרשון / לע"

This budget isn't a reflection of Trump's concerns and priorities, but Mulvaney's.

In Syria, Trump is no less absent. The president seethes over the Iran nuclear deal and vows to stop Tehran’s meddling in the Middle East, but he has repeatedly declined to re-impose sanctions and pull out of the deal. Nor has he acted to contain Iran’s regional ambitions, most notably in Syria.

Syria, and the growing presence there of Iran and its proxy army Hezbollah are the biggest threat Israel now faces, yet it can’t count on its No.1 ally for help.

The Obama administration also had a hands-off policy vis-à-vis  Syria. The policy had its flaws,  but at least there was a strategic logic to it -- to avoid entangling the U.S. in a quagmire, and to smooth relations with Iran to ensure a nuclear agreement. 

With Trump, no one (including the president, it seems) knows what America wants, apart from defeating ISIS, much less how it plans to get it.

Who's not on first

It’s unusual for the course of history to be directed by a single personality. Leaders with that kind of personal power are world-renowned figures, for better or for worse, like Alexander the Great, Napoleon, Hitler and Churchill.

In historical terms, Trump is a lightweight, but his personal qualities (or more accurately deficits) are reverberating around the world.

The president himself has no particular ideology apart from a crude zero-sum view of life as a series of deals where you try profit at the expense of the other side. He shows little knowledge or interest in policy and has a short attention span. But he does love working crowds and winning applause by telling them what they want to hear. When he is angry or exercised over something, he tweets with little thought about the implications of what he is saying, whether it is transgender troops or Puerto Rican debt. But there’s rarely any follow-up.  

White House officials and cabinet secretaries are supposed to be there to fill any such vacuum. That’s how it was in the Reagan administration: the president, lacking the intellectual depth for the job, relied on people like George Shultz and James Baker.

The Trump administration isn’t like that at all. Many keys jobs haven’t been filled and turnover at the White House is three times what it was under Obama. Many of those who are working are second-raters, or serve because they are a friend or relative of the president.

The responsible adults, like John Kelly and H.R.McMaster, devote too much of their time to putting out fires lit by the pyromaniac sitting in the Oval Office. Others, like Mulvaney with his budget, do as they please, knowing their boss isn’t overseeing them in any meaningful way.

Fickle love

The Israeli right isn’t bothered by any of this. It swoons every time the president declares his warm feelings for Israel and celebrated when he recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. What the right hasn’t caught on to yet is that it’s simply another crowd that the president wants to please for the moment.

But his declared love of Israel isn’t backed up by any consistent or active policy.If anything it contradicts itself, for instance, working to revive Palestinian talks while angering the Palestinians by cutting off aid and declaring Jerusalem Israel’s capital.

This isn’t art-of-the-deal maneuvering -- it’s just plain policy confusion by a White House that’s out of control.

Anyone who cares about Israel should have rued the Jerusalem move. It was an empty gesture, lacking even the timetable for moving the embassy that might have given it a little substance. If you are naïve enough, as many people are, to believe that Trump made his declaration because of his abiding fondness for Israel, you might ask his ex-wives or White House aides who he turned on how deep Trump’s love of anything really is. It’s for the moment.

In Syria, the White House gave its full backing to Israel over the weekend. But without action to follow it up, its statement amount to little more than another empty gesture. And, with Trump in charge, that’s where it’s likely to be all that Israel gets.