Among the many complaints about President Donald Trump is that he’s not just embarrassing America on the world stage, he’s also left the country more isolated than ever before. But the question Americans should be asking in the wake of the opening between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, which was marked this week by a historic first flight of an El Al plane from Ben-Gurion International Airport to Abu Dhabi, is whether the isolation that the United States is currently undergoing is actually a healthy development rather than a calamity.
To the extent that foreign policy is even mentioned in the Democratic campaign, that’s the refrain sounded by the campaign of former Vice President Joe Biden. Official surrogates like former Secretary of State John Kerry have spoken of the contrast between the love and admiration that President Barack Obama generated from European allies and Third World nations alike.
Some of this dismay with Washington is expressed in ways that have more to do with Europeans and others expressing their personal contempt for Trump. The notion that Americans feel shame about his conduct is more about culture and class than policy. There is much about Trump’s demeanor, public comments and tweets that are worthy of criticism. But these attitudes are for the most part merely a new variant of an old story in which Europeans and Americans who aspire to a sophisticated mid-Atlantic global identity look down on the mores and foibles of Americans and their leaders.
A better question to ask is whether his policies justify the anger at him in foreign capitals. Just as important, it is fair to ask whether America is as isolated as his critics claim, and whether or not the opprobrium with which U.S. foreign policy is viewed in some quarters indicates that Washington is doing the right thing rather than blundering.
A discussion of America’s alleged isolation must begin with the Israel-UAE agreement that breaks a 25-year-old logjam in the effort to bring peace to the Middle East.
Primary credit for the accord that is leading to normal relations between the Jewish state and the Emirates belongs to the expert diplomacy of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But it is also true that the breakthrough in which much of the Arab world has made it clear that it will no longer allow intransigent Palestinians to veto efforts to normalize relations with the State of Israel is due to a shift in American policy.
Under Obama, the United States was primarily interested in two things in the Middle East: pressuring Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians in a doomed effort to entice them to make peace; and appeasing Iran with a weak nuclear pact in order to effect a rapprochement with the West. The former was a fool’s errand that only served to strengthen the rejectionism that lies at the core of Palestinian political culture. The latter was equally futile, though also had the unintended effect of pushing the Arab states—that are rightly more afraid of Iranian aggression than they ever were of Israel—into the arms of the Jewish state.
The Trump administration reversed both of these mistaken policies. It not only made clear to the Palestinian Authority that its fantasies about pushing Israel back to the 1967 lines and then eliminating the country altogether needed to be abandoned, but also held it accountable for subsidizing terror. The long-overdue recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was a much-needed wake-up call for Israel’s opponents without causing the regional unrest the “experts” had predicted.
Though he had no qualifications for the job, senior adviser and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner has handled the Middle East peace portfolio more successfully than the peace “experts” in prior administrations. He deserves credit for putting forward a more realistic blueprint for peace than his predecessors. Kushner also played a key role in advancing the Israel-UAE agreement. He may be overly optimistic with his prediction that all 22 Arab countries will move forward on normalization with Israel. But only those who actively support Israel’s isolation or elimination can denigrate what he’s achieved in brokering this accord.
As for Iran, it is only the hope that a more pliant Democratic administration will take office next January that keeps them from conceding that it must renegotiate Obama’s 2015 nuclear deal. Eliminating the foolish sunset clauses that ensured that Iran will get a nuclear weapon must be a Western priority. The same is true of the need to force Tehran to back down on illegal missile-building and support for terrorism.
That the Europeans oppose or are unenthusiastic about Trump’s efforts on Middle East peace and Iran says more about the craven nature of their approach than about the president’s alleged foolishness.
Seen from that perspective, it ought to be obvious that the increased closeness between the United States and Israel, as well as the Arab states that also felt slighted by Obama, deserves applause as opposed to criticism.
Trump has not abandoned NATO but strengthened it by forcing allies to invest in their own defense. And although he is widely depicted as a puppet of Russia, U.S. policy towards Russia has actually been much tougher than that of Obama. Trump gave military aid to Ukraine that Obama refused and placed sanctions on Moscow. It should also be remembered that in 2012, Obama famously mocked opponent Mitt Romney for his insistence that Moscow was America’s chief geopolitical foe.
As Obama proved, the admiration of Europeans and intellectual elites did nothing to enhance American security or that of our allies, let alone advance the cause of peace. Trump engages in sometimes-foolish discourse about foreign policy and foreign despots. Yet in practice, his deeds have advanced traditional U.S. goals while acknowledging that most Americans don’t wish to be dragged into more unwinnable wars. And as the criticism of his efforts to isolate Iran from people like Fox News host Tucker Carlson indicates, his “America First” philosophy is not truly isolationist, but instead embodies a smarter and more cautious exercise of U.S. power than of those previous presidents, whose approach was cheered by establishment figures who have been wrong about virtually every issue for decades.
Despite his obvious shortcomings, Trump has proved that it’s better for America to be loved in Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi than in London, Paris and Berlin. That won’t change the minds of those who look down on him; still, a return to applause from the establishment will be bad news for American interests and those of Israel. If America’s current predicament is isolation, then it’s preferable to a return to Obama-style popularity.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.