September 25, 2020

In his farewell address, delivered before a joint session of the U.S. Congress on April 19, 1951, General Douglas MacArthur quotes a line from an old American Ballad, “Old soldiers never die – they just fade away.” 

Old foreign policy paradigms also don’t die, but unlike old generals, they don’t just fade away. They tend to be kept alive by the policy elites long after they cease to align with the national interests, as the elites resist pressure to take a hard look at received wisdom and come up with new ways to protect and advance the nation’s interests. 

If new discoveries challenge scientific paradigms and accelerate the process of change, international crises, wars in particular, play a similar role in forcing the elites and the public to reassess the reigning foreign policy paradigms. They do so by demonstrating the costs of continuing to maintain the status quo, but sometimes there needs to be a disrupter to challenge and remake the status quo.

From that perspective, the significance of the peace agreement signed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel last week, a diplomatic win delivered by President Donald Trump, went beyond ending a state of war that did not actually exist between two small Arab Gulf states and Israel.

Recall that Trump is the President who, since he ran for office in 2015, has been disparaged by members of Washington’s foreign policy establishment — the Blob — as having no experience in world affairs; a boorish and know-nothing chancer without the qualifications to lead the world’s only remaining superpower.

He was described by elites in Washington as an “isolationist” intent on destroying the post-1945 “liberal international order,” and a crude nationalist, who bashes America’s traditional allies while trying to be friends with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Eventually he’d end up drawing the United States into military conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere, perhaps even into a nuclear war. 

That these forebodings came from the same people who have been responsible for promoting policies that drew the United States into two catastrophic U.S. military interventions in the Middle East might have been cause for greater introspection.

But instead, they’ve continued to mock Trump for his political naiveté and gaucherie. For instance, they laughed when the President appointed his young son-in-law, Jared Kushner, a real estate executive, to make peace in the Middle East with the ‘Deal of the Century’.

Certainly, there’s an interesting comparison to be made between Kushner and President Barack Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry, a Man of the World who had schmoozed with the elites in Davos and dined with almost every living world leader, and who was in charge, among other things, of securing Middle East peace.   

In order to achieve that goal, Kerry assembled a large team of foreign policy wonks with PhDs in international relations from the Ivies. He spent close to two years shuttling between Middle Eastern capitals, and doing the right thing — as the elites sees it — by putting pressure on Israel to make concessions to Palestinians suffering under Israeli occupation. Of course, nothing actually came out of all of this, which is awkward given the fact that Kerry was operating within the accepted U.S. Middle East paradigm. 

It was John Kerry who predicted that there would be “an explosion” if America moved its embassy to Jerusalem, in “not just in the West Bank, and perhaps even in Israel itself, but throughout the region”. And in 2016, he prophesied that “there will be no separate peace between Israel and the Arab world. I want to make that very clear to all of you.”

Washington’s foreign policy establishment has clung for years to the dogma that the United States could not achieve its goals in the Middle East without resolving the Palestinian-Israeli issue: There is not going to be peace and stability in the Middle East until Washington forces the Israelis to withdraw from the West Bank and deliver the area to the control of the Palestinian leadership.

By negotiating the third historic Arab-Israeli peace treaty, Trump was in some senses presiding over a memorial service for this old way of thinking, as adhered to by the likes of John Kerry.

He might have muddled his way through, but Trump is the first President in decades to have charted a new path in the region. It was he who begun asking questions that should have been raised in the aftermath of the Cold War. For example, why are we in the Middle East anyway? What are exactly U.S. interests in the region at a time when America has become energy independent? And are we really advancing our interests by deposing rulers in the region and disrupting the status quo? 

He rejected the all-too-familiar advice of the members of the foreign policy establishment to force a regime change in Syria; to punish Saudi Arabia and Egypt for their human rights violations; to pressure Israel to make more concessions to the Palestinians; and to allow Iran to fill the vacuum created by U.S. disengagement from the region.

As Trump saw it, American policymakers had to stop fantasising about creating a “new Middle East” through neo-conservative prescriptions like nation-building by accommodating radical Islamist forces like the Iranian or the Muslim Brotherhood, as advocated by Obama and now by the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

Instead, the Trumpist approach toward the Middle East centres on the idea that the Americans need to support those forces in the Middle East that are ready to protect the region’s best interests without requiring direct U.S. military intervention i.e. most of the Arab-Sunni regimes and Israel.

It did therefore make sense to create the foundations for a new balance of power in the Middle East. Specifically, this means forming a regional alliance between Israel and most of the Arab-Sunni states, backed by Washington, and aimed at countering the power of Iran and its regional partners.

The United States would continue providing its allies with military support and perhaps serve as a balancer-of-last resort, ready to intervene if a global player was threatening the status quo.

This breakthrough has come as another shock to a foreign policy establishment consistently wrong-footed by the Trump administration. Remember it was them who warned that Trump’s approach towards North Korea would risk igniting a nuclear war. On Iran, they said that rescinding the nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic would lead to a U.S. military conflict.

They predicted that the world would come to an end if Washington did not intervene militarily to end the civil war in Syria. And let us not forget Trump’s alleged plans to sabotaged NATO, the United Nations and the World Bank. As for Trump’s trade war with China, there were fears of a threat to the entire global economy.

Instead, the global economy is intact (despite Covid), the World Bank remains open, and most importantly, under Trump the United States has not been pressed into new military adventures in the Middle East. In fact, he was able to get Arabs and Israelis to make peace, a goal that Obama and Kerry failed to achieve.

Trump has embraced a very pragmatic approach that assumes that foreign policy paradigms evolve in response to domestic and international changes, and are not dogmas that need to be kept alive forever. He believes that U.S. national interests and not some universal dream of a perfect world should determine American foreign policy. As for intervention, he thinks that America should help those friends who can help themselves, and certainly not try to appease those players who hate America and what it represents.

So far it’s working despite the opposition from the Blob. Indeed, you do not need a foreign policy wonk to figure out the right approach. Sometimes all it takes is an outsider with no vested interests in maintaining the status quo — perhaps a real estate tycoon from New York for instance.