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How Trump Transformed ‘Quid Pro Quo’ From Democratic Slur to Diplomatic Triumph

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Surrounded by Army cadets, President Donald Trump watches the 121st Army-Navy Football Game in Michie Stadium, West Point Military Academy. Dec. 12, 2020
Surrounded by Army cadets, President Donald Trump watches the 121st Army-Navy Football Game in Michie Stadium, West Point Military Academy. December 12, 2020.Credit: Andrew Harnik,AP
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin

Not everyone was thrilled with the latest, and possibly last, foreign policy coup pulled out by the Trump foreign policy team: a normalization agreement between Morocco and Israel. 

While Israelis and many Republicans cheered on the announcement, some Democrats weren’t joining in. That was in line with their previous form: the anti-Trump camp mostly ignored, rather than explicitly criticized, the Abraham Accords with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, as well as the subsequent deal with Sudan. So with Morocco: the deal was dismissed as a merely yet another Trumpian "quid pro quo" rather than real peace. 

That Latin phrase has become a term of abuse among Democrats, ever since it became the totemic phrase used to justify their failed Trump impeachment attempt. But the string of normalization deals showcases a triumphant side of the quid pro quo approach.

Far from indicating a shallow, cynical attitude to governance, these deals show quid pro quo is a swifter, smarter, saner strategy than the very different ideas and tactics pursued by previous administrations.

But what, if anything, will remain of the Trumpian quid pro quo philosophy once Donald Trump and Jared Kushner, the senior advisor/presidential son-in-law who facilitated the deals, depart from the White House? 

U.S. Presidential advisor Jared Kushner at the Royal Palace in the Moroccan capital, Rabat. December 22, 2020.Credit: FADEL SENNA - AFP

It’s not just a question of whether the Biden administration would potentially blow up the normalization deals by canceling the quid pro quos: arms sales to the U.A.E. or reneging on U.S. recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara. It’s also true of the Republican Party who, only a few years ago, was wedded to neoconservative notions prioritizing the promotion of democracy as the true purpose of U.S. foreign policy.

That potential division within the GOP was made clear when the Morocco deal was denounced in Foreign Policy by John Bolton, who served in the Reagan, Bush and Trump administrations. 

Unlike some other former key D.C. players, like Bill Kristol, who marginalized themselves within the GOP by Never Trumping everything the president did, Bolton is something of a special case. He was a key player on the Trump foreign policy team for two years, and one of the architects of the "maximum pressure" policy towards Iran. 

But not surprisingly, given his irascible personality and longstanding penchant for quarrelling with friend and foe alike, his disputes with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Kushner eventually led to his exit from the White House. Ever since, he has become a bitter critic of the administration and the president.

Where did Bolton stand on quid pro quo when he was serving the president? Bolton backed Kushner’s willingness to overturn decades of American policy by tilting toward Israel on issues like Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and holding the Palestinian Authority accountable for its subsidies for terrorists. And he despised Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal as much, if not more than, Trump. 

But like many other Republican foreign policy hands, he is at heart, a believer in institutions and the normal infrastructure of diplomacy and international politics in which he has spent his working life. He considers Trump and Kushner to be "dilettantes"' whose adherence to a transactional approach to diplomacy ignores history and its possible future consequences.

National Security Adviser John Bolton stands alongside Donald Trump as he speaks during a meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in the Oval Office, May 17, 2018.Credit: Saul Loeb/AFP

For Bolton, the sticking point with Morocco was what he called the "betrayal" of the Polisario Front, the group that, with the help of Algeria, has fought Morocco for control of 100,000 largely barren square miles along the Atlantic coast since Spain ended its colonial rule in 1975.

Along with his former boss, Secretary of State James Baker, Bolton played a small role in brokering a 1991 ceasefire between the two sides, with Polisario ending attacks in exchange for a referendum on the future of the territory. Morocco has never allowed that referendum to take place. 

The Polisario has friends in Europe and elsewhere in North Africa but only one significant ally in Washington: Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sen. James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma). Inhofe had managed to hold up Kushner’s willingness to trade U.S. recognition for Morocco’s claim to the Western Sahara for normalization with Israel for more than two years. 

But the senator lost his influence on Trump when he refused to add a provision to the National Defense Authorization Act, repealing protections for social media companies that, Trump claims, have acquired unprecedented power over the information superhighway and were censoring him and other conservatives as well. 

Having thwarted Trump on an issue close to his heart and that of  many other conservatives — Inhofe’s ability to defend the Polisario’s interests evaporated, and Kushner pounced. 

A Moroccan army vehicle drives past car wreckages in Guerguerat, Western Sahara, after the intervention of Moroccan armed forces in the area. November 24, 2020.Credit: FADEL SENNA - AFP

The result was a deal that meant a lot to Israelis, especially the nearly one million who are of Moroccan origin, in exchange for a swipe at the Polisario Front, a group that has no support among U.S. voters and only a marginal constituency in Washington. 

It also illustrated anew how little most Americans care about foreign policy outside of emotive issues, like those related to Israel, especially an arcane topic like that of the Western Sahara that most Americans couldn’t even find on a map. 

Even if you argue that Morocco’s claim to the Western Sahara is bogus, the notion that support for the Polisario is in America’s interests, or that the Sahrawi cause is particularly attractive in and of its own right, is equally weak.

Much of the international community still supports the myth that the Polisario represents the territory of Western Sahara, continuing to prop them up in a war they can never win in order to create another unstable dysfunctional Third World country. That is what passes for enlightened diplomatic activity at the U.N. and in other international bodies. 

But despite Bolton’s gripes about the dilettantes who outmaneuvered him in the White House, the Trump administration was merely acknowledging reality: the Moroccans aren’t giving up land they think is theirs any more than China will give up Tibet, Turkey its allies in northern Cyprus or Russia its hold on Crimea, though all of those occupations are far more widely opposed, and involve more egregious human rights violations, than the conflict in the Western Sahara.

A Palestinian woman passes a wall plastered with portraits of ‘martyrs’ at a market in the Balata camp, near the West Bank city of Nablus. December 15, 2020.Credit: JAAFAR ASHTIYEH - AFP

And in exchange for that, and encouraging investment, a significant regional player was upgraded from an informal to a more formal ally of the West, as well as a partner for Israel and its Gulf State allies against radicals and rogue states. It was another crack in the foundations of the effort to wipe out the only Jewish state on the planet.

Seen in that light, like the decision to sell F-35s to the U.A.E., Trump’s Morocco move doesn’t seem so unwise or unethical.

Even so, is there a future for this kind of diplomacy? Will a post-Trump GOP still embrace the Trumpist quid pro quo? Will the evident achievements of quid pro quo diplomacy trickle into Biden administration policymaking?

As the majority of President-elect Joe Biden’s high-level appointments so far have made clear, the new administration is an Obama reunion celebration, which means the foreign policy establishment is back in charge. The State Department and the National Security Council will be staffed with people who agreed with former Secretary of State John Kerry when he wrongly predicted that normalization between the Arab states and Israel was impossible without a resolution of the Palestinian issue first. 

But despite having been proved dead wrong by the ex-real estate executives who ran foreign policy under Trump, it’s unlikely they will sweep away everything in order to rewind the clock back to January 2017. 

U.S., Israeli and Moroccan flags on an El Al airplane after landing in Morocco's capital Rabat, on the first direct flight on a commercial plane between the two countries. December 22, 2020.Credit: - - AFP

The point about Trump’s transactional strategy is that it worked. Instead of focusing on maintaining policies that could never achieve any results — such as the unrealistic hope the Palestinians would ever seriously negotiate, and the equally hopeless stalemate in the Western Sahara — Trump seized opportunities to make deals that did advance U.S. interests, rather than allowing himself to be bogged down by diplomatic traditions.

Which means that, as infuriated as they may be by Trump’s decisions, the Biden White House will probably be loath to alienate the UAE or Morocco just to demonstrate that he can wipe away Trump’s achievements with the stroke of a pen.

Nor is it likely that Trump’s influence within the GOP will die the moment he and his family are no longer in charge.

Though his foolish and self-destructive denial of the reality of his election loss, an ironic reverse of his generally clear-eyed view of foreign policy, has hurt him, he is still his party’s leader, and will remain so as long as he wishes, in a way that no other former president or defeated presidential candidate has ever been. 

But even if Trump or one of his children aren’t running in 2024, the most likely Republican candidates won’t be listening to the likes of Bolton, let alone Kristol and the rest of the Never Trump renegades who now find themselves with no political home. Potential future GOP leaders like Senators Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz or Josh Hawley, former UN ambassador Nikki Haley or Vice President Mike Pence, will all tie themselves to the positive elements of Trump’s legacy. 

And, whether veteran diplomats like it or not, transactional foreign policy and quid pro quo deals of the sort that Trump made this last year are exactly what they will be looking to duplicate, should they return to power in four years.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of the Jewish News Syndicate and a columnist for the New York Post. Twitter: @jonathans_tobin