Trump, Netanyahu and the Iran flipflop
ناحوم بارنيا/يدعوت احرونوت: ترامب ونيتنياهو وإيران والتأرجح والمتغيرات المتقلبة
Nahum Barnea/Ynetnews/June 25/2019
Opinion: Israeli leaders have long enjoyed elevated status at the White House, but while the U.S. president basks in the acclaim he received for jettisoning the airstrike on Iranian targets at the last minute, one must consider who led him to that point, and why.
Three weeks ago, I met up with a few friends in Washington, all of whom are experts in American and international politics.
Each analyzed the virtues and weaknesses of our respective leaders – they with Donald Trump, I with Benjamin Netanyahu.But my leader, I insisted, is far more intelligent than yours. For a moment there was silence around the table.
“That’s right,” said one of my companions. “And that’s what makes yours far more dangerous.”
I recalled that conversation over the weekend, as the Iranians, deliberately and with knowing provocation shot down a $130 million American UAV and as Trump vowed in response, to the cameras, that there would be painful military action.
“You’ll find out,” the president said regarding how the U.S. would respond.
After tense discussions in the White House and the Pentagon, Trump authorized the bombing of several minor military targets in Iran; the planes took off, but then Trump talked to Tucker Carlson, a talk show host on Fox News.
Tucker, an outstanding contestant on “Dancing with the Stars,” warned Trump that if the attack was carried out, his chances of winning the next elections would be forever lost; Trump backtracked and cancelled the operation with 10 minutes to spare; Tucker praised Trump; the American left praised Tucker and Trump, both of whom they despise; the right was left squirming.
A Trump confidant told the media that despite the criticism, the president was happy, for the opportunity to play at war had filled him with pleasure; the dramatic cancellation of the operation at the last moment filled him with satisfaction. I’ve been overwhelmed by positive responses, claimed Trump.
Military operations are made to be cancelled – both during war and during the wars between wars. Israel faces this possibility regularly – IDF troops, Shin Bet agents and Mossad officials are dispatched, and then when the planes are in the air or the fighters in position on the ground, the prime minister decides to call everyone home. This is his right. The cause can be operational or political or even a gut feeling. That’s what the prime minister is for.
But Trump swims in other seas. Operational considerations are foreign to him. He relies solely on gut feelings, sometimes his own, sometimes those of his good friends at Fox News. But it is not enough.
Beyond that, he is trapped in a contradiction that is very difficult to reconcile. On the one hand, he is an isolationist. “America First,” is what he promised his base.
He tells them that America’s involvement in foreign wars is costly and unnecessary. Our boys must come home, he says, we will not be the world’s policeman anymore.
On the other hand, he promises them that he will defeat any enemy, humiliate any foe. Obama diminished America, he says. He will restore its glory anew.
The result is a flight from military and political decision-making, accompanied by inflammatory rhetoric. Teddy Roosevelt, one of the greatest American presidents, recommended foreign policy based on the premise of “speak softly and carry a big stick.”
Trump operates in an opposite manner. He loudly threatens enemies and allies alike, but then changes course. This does not create deterrence. At every opportunity, he attacks Obama’s foreign policy, but in reality is following his predecessor down the same path.
Obama set a red line for Bashar Assad in Syria, then went back on it, which led to disaster. Trump did the same thing with North Korea, and is now doing it with Iran too.
This brings us to Netanyahu and his part in the flipflop on Iran. Some Israeli prime ministers have enjoyed tremendous influence in the White House. Take Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak and their standing with Bill Clinton, or Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert and their status with George W. Bush.
Netanyahu went further: he swayed Trump’s actions in the Middle East to his personal interests, from his electoral considerations to which Israeli journalists were granted permission to cover the Bahrain conference that begins Tuesday.
Netanyahu pushed Trump to quit the nuclear agreement with Iran. Trump responded enthusiastically. The next step, an apparently necessary one, was to tighten sanctions. Trump’s assumption was that the ayatollahs would panic and surrender. Such arrogance, such ignorance.
What was Netanyahu’s game? We don’t know. Obama was convinced at the time that Netanyahu was trying to entangle him in a military confrontation with Iran. One cannot rule out the possibility that this was also the plan for Trump.
It is no wonder that quite a few people in American politics are convinced that the responsibility for Trump’s flipflop falls on Netanyahu. He is far more intelligent, and far more dangerous.