A History Lesson on Trump and the Mideast

A History Lesson on Trump and the Mideast

By Kenneth Stein

Donald Trump’s presidency, his foreign policy and the Middle East: What does history tell us?

The question for every incoming president is whether his administration will internalize lessons from the immediate past or assume that being the president of the United States will grant him some magical powers that did not already affect their predecessors.

Axiom 1: For the region at large, autocrats can change, but the cronyism or corruption of autocracies generally continues. Islam will remain a platform for political mobilization. Imposing political change from outside is difficult if not impossible.

Center for Israel Education President Ken Stein speaks to the more than 80 educators attending the annual CIE summer workshop on its final day June 30.
Center for Israel Education President Ken Stein.

Presidents who raise expectations or make demands later retreat because the region and its leaders don’t accept externally driven edicts.

Israeli Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Menachem Begin were incredulous in 1977 that President Jimmy Carter wanted Israel to openly negotiate with the PLO. The Netanyahu government did not accept President Barack Obama’s admonition about settlements in his June 2009 Cairo speech or his outline, suggested in May 2011, that negotiations should be based on the 1967 lines.

It is important to remember that not all positive policy emanates from Washington: Allies, friends and enemies often talk and work with one another successfully without informing Washington. The 1993 Oslo Accords were negotiated without Washington in the loop.

Be careful of what you say out loud; everyone in the Middle East is listening and prepared to put his own spin on presidential remarks. Curb your tweets!

Axiom 2: Where does foreign policy fit into a president’s immediate agenda? Most presidents since the end of World War II have taken their first two years in office to focus on domestic agenda priorities.

The exception unfolds when a recently sworn-in president is confronted by an immediate foreign policy spectacular, as 9/11 greeted George W. Bush eight months after he took office. And what if the Trump administration is confronted by a series of unanticipated domestic issues?

What we do know about the Middle East is that every president since Lyndon Johnson, with the exception of Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton, was engaged with a major war, regime shift or reality that dragged the president into unexpected involvements.

One can guess that an implosion of Arab states, the total splintering of Syria, the undoing of Islamic State, the growth of insurgencies, potential regime instability in Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Gulf states, and a violent confrontation on any of Israel’s borders could send the Trump administration scurrying for replies.

Axiom 3: Henry Kissinger said, “We cannot always assure the future of our friends; we have a better chance of assuring our future if we remember who our friends are.” Israel is Washington’s only stable, reliable and consistent regional ally.

Besides his own outlook and a stated priority to crush militant Islam, Trump is twinned to the Obama administration’s recently signed 10-year, $38 billion military aid package with Israel and to Vice President Mike Pence, who is deeply pro-Israel.

Axiom 4: How the president makes decisions matters. Peter Rodman, an adviser to Kissinger, summarized different decision-making models in his book “Presidential Command.”

There is the White House-centered system of Richard Nixon and Barack Obama. Gerald Ford tried to designate responsibility to his Cabinet, in part because he emerged from a quarter-century of consensus building in Congress. Jimmy Carter often elicited opposite viewpoints from National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and their teams.

From his business experiences, Trump, like George W. Bush, will likely implement a modified CEO model and will want to be at the decision-making center. But perhaps not on all issues, reminiscent of Ronald Reagan, who was seized by Soviet policy but not the Arab-Israeli negotiating process, Lebanon or Central America.

One can see Trump engaged deeply in immigration and trade issues, perhaps while leaving ISIS and Islamic radicalism to his national security team and playing a role in determining whether and when the Iran deal is reinforced or overturned. It seems that Pence will, at least at the outset, be a key congressional liaison.

Axiom 5: Strong-willed advisers often lead a president but often butt heads against others with similar personalities; when heavyweights or institutions go toe-to-toe, dysfunction in policy directions can occur.

Rodman concludes that when presidents do not engage personally, consistently and forcefully, they lose control over an issue. How the secretary of state, defense secretary and national security adviser get along matters to policy-making and implementation.

Finally, history tells us that since World War II, presidents who do not come to the presidency through previous, even if limited, experience in Washington or in international affairs — Carter, Reagan, Clinton, Bush II — have a steeper learning curve about foreign policy issues.


Kenneth Stein teaches Middle Eastern history, political science and Israel studies at Emory University and leads the Center for Israel Education (www.israeled.org).

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