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May 2020 Issue [Easy Chair]

The Striking Gesture


“I  was not elected to do small things,” President Donald Trump said upon announcing his new Middle East peace plan at the end of January.

Trump was not elected to do big things, either. He was not elected to do anything at all, really, except to steward the same failed domestic and foreign policy agendas America has pursued for decades. Tax cuts for the wealthiest. The war on terror, now to be won with the lives of our regional “allies” at minimal expense. The perpetual abuse and exploitation of would-be immigrants. Inaction on climate change, even as the oceans lap at the fringes of our coastal cities.

As much as Trump’s handlers like to portray him as a “disrupter”—a juvenile concept to begin with—he is nothing of the sort. His recent Middle East “deal” is a case in point. Of course, it is not actually a deal, a concept that implies a pact freely agreed upon by two or more parties. It is rather an affirmation of the same U.S. policy that for decades has allowed Israel to create ever more “facts on the ground,” with the result that over seven hundred thousand Jewish Israeli settlers now reside in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

In the maps provided as a part of the Trump plan, the Palestinian enclaves are reduced to something like an archipelago, or a hemisphere of the brain peppered by some form of dementia. In return for accepting this arrangement, Palestinians have been promised a four-year freeze on new Israeli settlements; a demilitarized state of their own; $50 billion in “international investment,” mostly from other Arab states; and a tunnel connecting the Palestinian sectors of the West Bank with the Gaza Strip. For its part, the Palestinian Authority is required to disarm Hamas and other militant resistance groups, and renounce the right of return for its people. The prospect of any Islamic jurisdiction in the city of Jerusalem will be exchanged for a Palestinian capital—complete with a U.S. embassy!—in the suburb of Al-Quds. The overall plan, Trump claimed, would “more than double Palestinian territory”—mostly because Israel would hand over tracts of barely habitable land in the Negev.

Give up all your hopes and your holiest places, embark on a terrible civil war with your brothers, hand over all your weapons, and we’ll give you $50 billion of other people’s money, and a whole lot of desert! Plus a tunnel! This offer is designed for propaganda, not peace. Just in case there was any chance that it might be accepted, the plan was rolled out with as many insults and provocations as possible. Upon its introduction, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu moved immediately to annex the Jordan Valley and all Jewish settlements in the West Bank. (Settlements that, according to the proposal, could be expanded indefinitely, so long as they are not new.)

Jared Kushner, who boasted that he’d read twenty-five books on the subject before designing the plan, blamed all the region’s agonies on the Palestinians: “If they screw up this opportunity—which, again, they have a perfect track record of missing oportunities—if they screw this up, I think that they will have a very hard time looking the international community in the face, saying they are victims, saying they have rights.”

David Friedman, Trump’s former lawyer and the current U.S. ambassador to Israel—a man who in 2016 called supporters of the liberal Jewish think tank J Street “far worse than . . . Jews who turned in their fellow Jews in the Nazi death camps”—justified Netanyahu’s land grab in traditional imperialist rhetoric: “You have a modern, First World, strong, democratic nation trying to make peace with a highly divided and challenged people and series of different governments. How do you make a deal when one side is Israel and one side is the Palestinians?”

Yes, it’s so hard to negotiate with such a primitive people. Best to just take their land and tell them to vanish into history.

“Like all too many Americans,” Paul Krugman wrote early this year,


Trump has a hard time grasping the fact that other countries are real—that is, that we’re not the only country whose citizens would rather pay a heavy price, in money and even in blood, than make what they see as humiliating concessions.

Krugman was referring not to the deep-sixing of any future for the Palestinians but to a previous Trump feint at foreign policy, the assassination of Major General Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s international terror networks. Like the proposed peace plan, however, Soleimani’s killing was not some original flourish of Trump’s, but rather part of a long-standing tradition in American foreign policy, albeit one with a particularly Republican provenance.

Call it “militaristic isolationism” or “symbolic internationalism.” Better yet, call it “the striking gesture”: a token show of force, a threat, or even a few words that serve as a miraculous incantation from which all future blessings—such as the fall of the Soviet Union—are said to flow, and which takes the place of any substantive engagement with the world. It is Ronald Reagan proclaiming, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”; John Foster Dulles pledging to “roll back” Communism in Asia and Eastern Europe; Gerald Ford rescuing the SS Mayaguez less than two weeks after the fall of Saigon.

The advantage of the striking gesture is that it not only enables Republican administrations to pose as “tough” on national security—without any real political or diplomatic engagement—but also serves to bait Democrats into extended, often disastrous military conflicts. Its antecedents date to the years immediately after World War II, when Republicans had to confront a decade of foreign-policy fiascoes. The GOP had been the party of the leading isolationists, missing the threat posed by Hitler and international fascism. Now they were bungling the U.S. response to the Cold War. Senator Robert Taft of Ohio, “Mr. Republican,” opposed both the Marshall Plan and NATO, wanting instead to pull the United States out of Europe and to back Chiang Kai-shek in his civil war against Mao—Vietnam, on an unimaginable scale.

It was evident, even at the time, that had the United States followed the Republican lead, the results would have been catastrophic. Hence, Taft and his fellow GOP leaders embraced an array of conspiracy theories, encouraging the leering, Trumpian demagogue Senator Joe McCarthy in his witch hunts and slanders; purging the State Department; creating the myth of betrayal at Yalta; and, ludicrously, demanding to know, “Who lost China?” Democrats, to maintain their Cold War credentials, dutifully plodded into full-fledged wars in Korea and Vietnam, which in turn provided their own opportunities for demagoguery.

As an aspiring Republican presidential candidate, General Douglas MacArthur proposed to cover his blunders in Korea by promising to end the war, if only he were allowed to “unleash” Chiang to invade the Chinese mainland from Taiwan; spread “a belt of radioactive cobalt” from “the Sea of Japan to the Yellow Sea”; and drop “between thirty and fifty atomic bombs” on enemy installations in Manchuria and Korea.

“That many bombs would have more than done the job,” MacArthur later reflected.

Yes: the job of bringing on a nuclear winter. This was a little much, even for the coldest of warriors. The vote went to another old Republican soldier, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who promised, “I will go to Korea.” This runic pledge got him elected president, after which he did indeed go on an inspection tour of the front, come home, and sign an armistice agreement accepting the existing stalemate. Just twelve years later, with the United States ankle deep in the next quagmire, the Republican presidential nominee, Barry Goldwater, suggested that “defoliation of the forests” in Vietnam “by low-yield atomic weapons could well be done.” He also wanted NATO commanders to be able to use atomic weapons in combat at their own discretion. Ronald Reagan chimed in soon afterward: “It’s silly talking about how many years we will have to spend in the jungles of Vietnam when we could pave the whole country and put parking stripes on it and still be home for Christmas.” This became a commonplace: We should have turned Vietnam into a parking lot!

After Vietnam, Democratic presidents began to wise up. President Clinton used bombs to halt ethnic cleansing in a dissolving Yugoslavia and bring the Serbs to the negotiating table, but he followed up the bombing with a successful peace initiative rather than a major troop commitment. President Obama used threats to remove chemical weapons from Syria, but he was not willing to spend U.S. lives on nation building in that incredibly murky situation.

“It is too easy for a president to go to war,” Obama decided in refusing to intervene.

Instead, Obama brought a new maturity—and an old one, harking back to the alliances that won World War II and set Europe on its feet again in the aftermath—to American engagement with the world. He corralled a group of friendly nations to work out an actual deal with an old adversary, Iran, to get it to shelve its nuclear program. This was widely denounced by Republicans, including many veterans of George W. Bush’s national security apparatus, among whom it was bandied about that “everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran.”

Not Donald Trump, who, much as he wanted to undo all things Obama, also had before him the example of the Cheney White House, which—falling for its own party’s con—had attempted to set up a model capitalist state in Iraq. After he made the striking gesture of tearing up the nuclear deal, Trump hoped to force regime change by squeezing Iran with economic sanctions and building a wall of hostile Arab states to confront the supreme leader. It didn’t work, at least not according to the timetable of instant gratification that Trump always prefers. Not only was Iran undeterred, but Israeli intelligence was soon reporting to Trump that the smaller Gulf States—as well as Saudi Arabia—were quietly negotiating to ease tensions with Tehran.

The result was an escalating series of incidents between the United States and Iran that culminated in Soleimani’s assassination and Iran’s retaliation: a rocket attack leaving more than one hundred American soldiers with brain injuries that Trump dismissed as “headaches.” The New York Times reported, “Mr. Trump and his advisers believed the United States had gotten the better of the exchange,” and it’s likely that most Americans agree. Soleimani’s death even got a big clap from Nancy Pelosi at the State of the Union address.

One trouble with the striking gesture is that people often get hurt, usually to little purpose. Hungarians who believed in Dulles’s promise to “roll back” Communism rose up against their Soviet occupiers in 1956. But nothing rolled, except Soviet tanks into Budapest. Ford’s Mayaguez response sacrificed the lives of 41 American servicemen to save 39 merchant seamen—who had already been released. Soon thereafter, we were backing those who had seized the ship, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, in an effort to side with their sponsor, China. When the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut killed 241 servicemen, President Reagan deflected attention by plunging right into Grenada, where 113 more people, 19 of them American troops, died. And when George H. W. Bush invited Shiite and Kurdish opponents of Saddam Hussein’s regime to rebel following the Gulf War, up to 150,000 Iraqis were slaughtered.

Just last October, the United States abandoned the Kurds again. Trump made the bizarre excuse, seemingly borrowed from a right-wing blogger, that “they didn’t help us in the Second World War; they didn’t help us with Normandy.” What the Kurds had done was finish off the Islamic State, but Trump’s words accorded with the notion that other peoples aren’t actually real—just tools to be used for one purpose or another and then discarded (or smashed) when they are no longer useful.

No doubt, Trump and his supporters would like to frame this mindset as some sort of realpolitik, a grim but realistic acceptance of how the world works. But this is another problem with reducing foreign policy to the striking gesture: it usually leads to even greater disasters in the long run.

Thus, Reagan’s telling a staggering USSR to tear down the Berlin Wall was one thing, but the elder Bush’s refusal to help the former Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc establish working democracies—“We have more will than wallet”—spawned a litter of crooked autocracies and a new Russian dictatorship, headed by a malicious former KGB officer. The hostility of Iran’s leadership stems from the CIA sponsorship of a 1953 coup—No muss, no fuss, no bother!—to keep that country under the shah for another generation. Untold decades of backing despots and death squads in Latin America produced the multitudes of desperate migrants who have come to our borders, pleading for help. And somehow, after those farcical summits, Kim Jong-un still commands an arsenal of nukes.

The consequences of our latest striking gestures are just as predictable. Sure, the death of Soleimani is not a loss for the world. Yet Iran’s terror networks will continue to operate. Iran itself will be all the more likely to develop nuclear weapons, and so set off an alarming new arms race in the region. And while Palestinian leaders and their backers certainly bear a heavy responsibility for the failure to reach a Middle East peace, Israel will be saddled with a seething minority population—perhaps even a majority, with time—with which it will be unable to reconcile. America’s credibility will further erode, and the world will be that much more dangerous. Which is just what the Republican Party likes to see at election time, when it can flex its “toughness” on national security.

As of this writing, Trump has done yet another “big” thing, reaching a deal in Afghanistan whereby we will leave that land after nineteen years on the solemn promise that the Taliban will never enable another terrorist group to carry out an attack on America as they did on 9/11. Were a Democratic president to do such a thing, it would be portrayed by Republicans as a feckless, immoral betrayal of the Afghans who risked everything to side with us, and a compromise with a group that wants to send Afghanistan back to the seventh century. As it is, those friends of ours can now join the spectral ranks of the Hungarian freedom fighters, South Vietnamese, Kurds, Iraqis, and all those other peoples who were foolish enough to believe in American promises. But hey, where were they on D-Day?

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