I wonder how many minds turned to Robert Caro’s magisterial biography of Lyndon Johnson when they saw footage of yesterday’s White House ceremony, at which Israel, Bahrain and the UAE signed the so-called Abraham Accords.
Caro’s ongoing multi-volume life of LBJ has everything. On one level, it is a political thriller. On another, it is a history of the US in the second half of the 20th century. It is so much more, besides, including a meditation on one of the enduring questions in history: can a bad person do good things?
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Which brings us to Donald Trump’s role in securing peace between Israel and the UAE, with Bahrain now following and, soon, more Arab states. President Trump provides the latest incarnation of that question — the answer to which is plainly yes. History is littered with figures with whom one would rather not engage on a personal level, but whose contribution to humanity was immense.
Take, in our own times, Martin McGuiness and Ian Paisley. The latter was a bigot, who proudly trumpeted that bigotry and even flirted with paramilitaries. The former was almost certainly a murderer. For the bulk of their time on earth, they both lived lives that should have sent them to the hell in which they believed — and yet when they died they were widely and genuinely mourned, with a legacy of peace that endures to this day.
How about Steve Jobs? As close to a monster as the rules of the modern workplace allowed, but who used that monstrous ego and personality to change our world for the better. Or there is Henry Ford, a grotesque bully and a bigot beloved of Hitler and his circle. But one of the great industrialists, whose vision transformed capitalism and who enabled huge numbers of people to afford a car of their own.
More interesting, perhaps, than that simple question — and one reason why LBJ is so fascinating a figure — is a variation on it: can a bad man do good things for bad motives?
It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of the deals between Israel, Bahrain and the UAE and with Bahrain, both in their own terms and as harbingers of what is likely to follow. Diplomatic and political reality, as well as the Arabic concept of mu-wazana (balance), mean that the rest of the Gulf States and other Arab countries will follow. And thus, quite apart from the obvious lessening of one set of tensions in the region, recognition by Gulf states will cement an alliance standing up to Iran, a nation which threatens peaceful existence far beyond the Middle East.
Much of the credit for this must go to Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, whose story is itself an example of the enduring question. Mired in corruption allegations, with a trial due to start in weeks, Mr Netanyahu is a ruthless operator who ditches allies when they no longer serve his purpose and who will say almost anything to secure re-election. But unsavoury as he may be domestically, as a geopolitical strategist he is a genius. For almost any other Israeli leader, the security threat posed by the Iran nuclear deal would have marked a disastrous failure. For Mr Netanyahu, it provided the opportunity to regenerate Israeli relations with its neighbours.
Building on his long-term strategy of using Israeli strength and resolute defence of its security to persuade its neighbours that they have no realistic choice but to formally acknowledge its existence and build a relationship, the Israeli leader leveraged Arab opposition to President Obama’s Iran deal to Bismarckian ends.
But while the presence of Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed in the UAE were necessary for a deal, which led to Bahrain joining them, there was one figure without whom no deal would have been possible: President Trump.
A fortnight ago, the US leader was nominated by a Right-wing populist Norwegian MP for the Nobel Peace Prize. Understandably, the idea has been mocked almost universally. Understandably, because President Trump is an appalling figure — a man who stokes racist fires, who traduces democratic norms, who treats the office of president as a form of ego-massage, who bullies and who lies. His re-election as president might endanger the US’s democracy itself — and perhaps still more so if he is not re-elected and refuses to accept the result.
And yet. As Christian Tybring-Gjedde, the Norwegian MP behind the nomination, put it: “I think he has done more to create peace between nations than most other peace prize nominees. The committee should look at the facts and judge him on the facts — not on the way he behaves sometimes.”
In 2009, President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize for not being President Bush. He conducted himself with dignity and propriety throughout his two terms in office — but his foreign policy legacy was a disaster, with his main accomplishment a deal with Iran so dangerous and bad that almost all of Iran’s neighbours have tried their level best to scupper it.
And it would take some beating for murderous negligence than his refusal to back up his own language over Syria, when he announced in April 2012 that the use of chemical weapons by Bashar Assad would be a “red line” and then did precisely nothing when, a year later, Assad killed more than 1,400 of his own people with sarin gas. Obama gave off the vibe of a wise and good leader. The reality was disastrous for the US — and its allies.
President Trump, on the other hand, is a prize shit, who disgraces his office in ways more previously unimaginable with every passing day. But he is also responsible for one of the most significant and important breakthroughs ever towards Middle East peace. Which president is more deserving of a prize for peace?
Trump is hardly the first US president to embody this dichotomy: Richard Nixon, the only president to resign and a byword for paranoia, bigotry and the abuse of office, was also responsible for one of the great foreign policy breakthroughs of the modern world when he visited Beijing.
And then we return to Nixon’s predecessor, LBJ. He was corrupt, lied with impunity, was a megalomaniac, a misogynist and a bully. He was also a coward. He urinated into his washbasin in front of secretaries and shouted orders to his aides while defecating. But he also changed the lives of hundreds of millions of black Americans for the better through the civil rights legislation that he pushed through — when few others (including many of those in his administration) thought it possible.
What makes LBJ so endlessly fascinating is his motivation. He had next to no interest in the cause. As Caro’s biography shows, his interest in civil rights was — as with everything else in his life — entirely political. No southern politician could be elected president while the South remained so reactionary, so he used his skills to remove that problem for him — the skills of a lying, corrupt bully.
Civil rights may have been a vehicle for Johnson rather than a cause, but what are President Trump’s motives? For Johnson, civil rights were a means to an end. For Trump, Middle East peace deals are the end, but not because he has any interest in the region or in policy more generally. Rather, he portrays himself as the Deal Maker Par Extraordinaire. One day it is North Korea, the next Abu Dhabi. One may turn out to be a charade, the other to have substance. But both — and everything else — are about the Trump brand and the braggadocio that is its foundation. The components and substance of any deal, of any policy, are an irrelevance; what matters is the fact of President Trump’s involvement and how that is sold to the electorate.
And so, once more, we contemplate that eternal question of what makes a good person. President Trump may stretch that label to breaking point. But not quite…