Trump ticked off his favorite hobby horses — immigration, borders, bad trade deals, building up the military and U.S. allies not paying their fair share for the common defense.
But while the tone of economic populism that has dominated Trump’s discussion of foreign affairs since the beginning of his presidential campaign is a shift from his predecessors, the notion of a clean break with the past is, in many respects, as much a matter of smoke and mirrors as a lot of other proclamations coming out of the White House.
Strip away the Trumpian braggadocio, and read the document his administration has produced, and what you find are policy guidelines that are remarkably realistic not only in terms of the challenges facing the United States but those of Israel as well.
The assumption has been that anything labeled "America First" would wind up being an isolationist creed that would mean an American withdrawal from the world - and ultimately leave the Jewish state on its own.
It is possible to interpret Trump’s Monday tweet yesterday in a similar spirit - a tweet that seemed to assert that a Washington State train derailment was caused by the U.S. spending seven trillion dollars in the Middle East - as proof of his lack of interest in global engagement.
The train accident that just occurred in DuPont, WA shows more than ever why our soon to be submitted infrastructure plan must be approved quickly. Seven trillion dollars spent in the Middle East while our roads, bridges, tunnels, railways (and more) crumble! Not for long!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 18, 2017
Yet the text of the administration white paper, as well as the substance of Trump’s policies in his first year in office, proves the contrary. Neo-con idealism about democracy, and Obama’s faith in multilateralism and international organizations as well as outreach to Iran and the Palestinians, are dead. But in their place is something that cannot be dismissed as isolationism.
Despite the attempt on the part of both admirers and detractors to see his policy as a unique break with the past, the evidence for this is scant. Trump’s aggressive stance toward ISIS, and the change in the rules of engagement that produced a victory that eluded President Obama, was very much in line with traditional Republican doctrine. The same can be said, despite the opprobrium from the left, for his withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords.
At the heart of the Trump doctrine are some contradictions. Trump wants to be tough on Iran, but his crush on Vladimir Putin and Obama-like reluctance to confront Iran and Russia in Syria, undermines his instinct to resist Tehran. He wants to promote American power and influence, but his pay-as-you-go version of alliances complicates Washington’s relations with its partners.
But Trump has still produced a paper that has more common sense than some of the high-flown rhetoric that emanated from Obama, Clinton and the Bushes. And the section on the Middle East is evidence of that.
Realism is a term that was used to describe opponents of George W. Bush’s policies. In one sense, that fits Trump, since he remains a fierce critic of Bush’s wars — his mention of the seven trillion dollar figure is obviously about Iraq, and not U.S. aid to Israel. But the foreign policy establishment "realists" have been quite unrealistic when it came to both Israel and the real cause of conflict in the region.
Among the most memorable lines in the 68-page document produced by the administration is a specific denunciation of one of the realists' most sacred cows: The notion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was "the prime irritant preventing peace and prosperity in the region."
Trump rightly discards this myth. Instead, his doctrine points out that "threats from jihadist terrorist organizations and the threat from Iran are creating the realization that Israel is not the cause of the region’s problems." Specifically rejecting both blind faith in "democratic transformation" and "disengagement," Trump seeks instead to strike a cautious balance between the need to assert U.S. power, and the realization that American can’t fix all of the world’s problems.
Instead of seeking to "save Israel from itself," Trump’s doctrine acknowledges the problems with pressuring the Jewish state to make concessions to a Palestinian peace partner tainted by its subsidization of terror. His faith that an "outside-in" strategy in which the common interests of Israel and the Arab states like Saudi Arabia could lead to peace may underestimate the power of rejectionism among Palestinians and the Arab street. But it is still devoid of the magical thinking about democracy and strong-arming Israel to which Bush and Obama subscribed.
This will disappoint a Jewish left that has looked to Washington to compensate for its electoral setbacks in Israel. He will also continue to confound and outrage observers who are frustrated by his unpresidential behavior as well as his faith in détente with Moscow.
But, despite his lack of policy knowledge, Trump understands that Palestinian rejectionism - on display again in the over-the-top reactions to Trump’s Jerusalem statement that itself, pointedly, did not preclude a two-state solution - renders pressure on Israel pointless.
By refusing to hold U.S. policy hostage to terror threats and the Palestinians’ inability to compromise, this president is taking the U.S. in a more sensible direction.
Though he will get little credit it for this from most American Jews, who are more invested in the "resistance" to his administration than in Israel, his foreign policy doctrine strikes a sensible balance that belies the assumption that "America First" will leave the Jewish state isolated.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS.org and a contributing writer for National Review. Twitter: @jonathans_tobin
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