The rumor mill has Donald Trump appointing solid Mitt Romney or popular Nikki Haley as secretary of state. In both cases, if borne out, it’s a brilliant Machiavellian move. Both potential nominees will calm an anxious world, reunite the GOP and cast Trump as magnanimously reaching out even to his harshest critics. Such welcome appointments will also help deflect attention away from some of Trump’s other appointments, which include firebrands and extremists with a dash of weirdo, that utterly dispel the notion that the President-elect will moderate his ways once elected.
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It’s the same modus operandi that Trump used last week in announcing his first major White House appointments: throw a big bone to the worried establishment by naming Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus as chief of staff but then placate your racist right-wing base by naming white nationalist Steve Bannon as the White House’s chief strategist. Here, under cover of reports that Trump plans to name a secretary of state who will immediately mollify markets and diplomats, Trump has appointed a surly Islamophobic Dr. Strangelove, General Michael Flynn, as national security adviser and Jeff Sessions, a controversial Southern senator with a racist reputation, who allegedly found fault with the Ku Klux Klan only when he realized they smoked marijuana, to the all-important post of attorney general.
And in further proof that everything in life is relative and that Trump enjoys the fruits of low expectations, his appointment of Tea Party Congressman Mike Pompeo was greeted with widespread relief and even praise, despite Pompeo’s hard line positions, if only because he seems like a thoughtful politician who is wiling to listen to others. And against this backdrop of general mayhem, even the reports of the impending appointment of Governor Mike Huckabee – which has since been denied, much to the regret of journalists and Messianics – is greeted with barely a shrug. After all, what is more natural than to send to current Israel an American envoy who opposes territorial concessions, negates the very existence of a Palestinian nation and believes in an Armageddon that will herald the Second Coming?
At their extreme, there are two basic ways to regard the emerging national security squad. First is to accept them calmly, to say that any new administration deserves to be given a chance, that there are internal checks and balances in Trump’s appointments, that they should be judged by their actions and that only condescending liberals would have expected Trump to change his ways once he got into power. He promised radical change, and judging by his picks, bizarre as some may seem, he intends to live up to his pledges.
The other approach is that Trump’s emerging team is delusional, dangerous and dabbed with touches of anti-Semitism, that it will evoke fear and loathing throughout the world, entangle America in inevitable conflict and essentially threaten the future of humanity. If you subscribe to the first, you can take it easy, relax, sit back and hopefully wait for the future. If you prefer the second, it’s time to start stocking up on food, bidding goodbye to distant relatives and searching for your nearest fallout shelter.
One way or the other, there’s no doubt that Trump’s appointments do little to assuage the fears of liberals and minorities, but on the contrary. The appointment of Sessions, who was rejected by the Senate 20 years ago when nominated to serve as federal judge because of reports of his racist statements – which he denied – is sparking fears that many of the achievements of the civil rights movement over the past half century could soon be undone. Vice President Mike Pence got a taste of the level of suspicion and apprehension gripping minorities and liberal enclaves when he was heckled on Friday night on Broadway at a performance of the hit musical "Hamilton" and then forced to listen to a public plea to change the incoming administration’s ways.
American Jews, already up in arms about Bannon’s appointment, can’t be pleased by the addition of two new figures that have been forced to apologize recently for “accidentally” retweeting anti-Semitic messages. Flynn deflected claims that Russia was influencing the elections by retweeting “Not anymore, Jews, not anymore” while only this week Huckabee apologized for endorsing a bogus story accusing “liberal Jews” of painting swastikas at Northwestern University. If he comes to Israel, at least, he’ll be able to accuse leftist Jews of anything his heart desires and be praised by right-wing politicians for his efforts.
Nonetheless, until Trump’s patchwork is complete, it’s hard to make solid predictions about the general thrust of his foreign policy, especially since some of the appointments are seen as a reward for loyalty rather than calculated placements. On the face of it, the nuclear deal with Iran seems to be in immediate danger, as both Flynn and Pompeo have fiercely criticized the accord and called for either revoking it or imposing punitive sanctions on Iran that would probably achieve the same outcome. Nonetheless, Trump is hearing pleas from several quarters – possibly including Israel – not to hurry to tear up the nuclear accord as this could further destabilize the Middle East and harm efforts to destroy ISIS. More significantly, perhaps, Flynn, like Trump and unlike Pompeo, is thought to be conspicuously if not suspiciously inclined to improve relations with Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin. There is an inherent contradiction between seeking to revoke the nuclear deal with Iran and a reset of ties with Moscow, given its patronage of the nuclear deal and its collaboration with Iran in keeping Basher Assad in power in Damascus.
The same is true of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On the face of it, the Jewish settlers and other right-wingers were right to celebrate Trump’s election as heralding the demise of the two-state solution. Flynn, Pompeo and Huckabee, if he is appointed, are either in line with Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies or stand to their right. Nonetheless, what should worry opponents of a peace deal with the Palestinians – and not just them – is the depth of Trump’s commitment to forging a new alliance with Russia. If this is his overarching strategic objective, then Israel could very well find itself facing not a new era of unencumbered expansion and even annexation but a renewal of coordination between Washington and Moscow that will resuscitate its worst nightmare: a return to the Geneva Conference era of the 1970s, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union sought to impose a solution on both sides.