In suddenly recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Donald Trump set forth his vision of American foreign policy: it exists solely for the purpose of fulfilling his own domestic political desires.
There is no other explanation for Wednesday’s declaration, in which Trump congratulated himself for making an historic change and then emphasized that everything is going to stay the same. For purposes of international relations, the whole exercise is, at best, a stunt.
For purposes of Trump’s domestic goals, though, it’s borderline brilliant. This announcement supplies yet more red meat to a right-wing base that must be in massive need of Lipitor at this point. It particularly stirs the hearts of hard-core evangelicals, whose Alabama cohort now holds the key to electing Roy Moore. It provokes a surefire reaction of rage across the Arab world and thus sets Trump's favorite crazy-scary Muslim bogeyman freshly spinning in the American mind. It draws the eyes of the world away from Robert Mueller. And best of all for a guy who likes to govern from the golf course, it’s all bull.
“We are not taking a position on any final status issues,” Trump intoned some way in to his remarks, “including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem.”
So President Guts is recognizing Jerusalem, but not saying what Jerusalem is, nor ruling out the possibility that one day, the Palestinians might make a capital within the borders of their part of Jerusalem.
What a declaration: It’s clear, yet blurry. Inflammatory, yet meaningless. Provocative, yet vacant. In a word, Trumpian.
In fairness, one can’t blame Trump for a problem that is just about as old as he is, and almost as maddening. The president is perfectly correct to note the ritual absurdity of his predecessors calling, as candidates, for the embassy to be relocated, knowing full well they would do no such thing if elected. But the honorable maverick move here isn’t to follow through on the empty promise. It’s to refuse to make that promise in the first place.
That said, any violence springing from the announcement should count as the fault of the idiots committing it, not the idiot who handed them a pretext. And given the peace-process boilerplate that some grownup managed to tack on to the end of it, the statement won’t, God willing, wreak as much havoc as some critics fear. But it does do several obvious harms:
It tears the final fig leaf off any notion that the U.S. can preside over a remotely impartial peace process. Trump not being the only one with a political base to consider, it automatically weakens the hand of Palestinians who might favor a pragmatic model of co-existence, and strengthens that of the “drive Israel into the sea” crowd. It makes it unnecessarily difficult for U.S. allies in the Arab world to function as U.S. allies, and thus needlessly complicates the American ability to do anything at all in the Middle East that requires the cooperation of anyone other than Bibi Netanyahu. It potentially compromises the safety, and definitely erodes the credibility, of U.S. representatives in the region, though not nearly as much as it will do if and when the embassy actually moves. And for what?
For the advancement of Donald Trump’s immediate domestic political goals, of course. In those terms, these down sides are just up sides in bare disguise. Eroding American primacy to the peace process? No problem. Having castigated predecessors for “leading from behind”, Trump has shown nothing but distaste for the idea of leading at all. This heir of Reagan clearly adheres to the, um, counterintuitive belief that the secret to accruing American power is to abdicate it. From ditching the Paris Agreement to trashing the Trans-Pacific Partnership to dissing NATO to picking stupid fights with every non-dictator head of state he comes across, the president applies an almost entrepreneurial zest to the business of creating power vacuums for other nations to fill.
Arabs enraged? Fab! For purposes of Trump’s cornerstone Islamophobia, the more Arabs caught on camera shaking their fists, hurling rocks (or rockets) and burning American flags, the better. Of course, not all Arabs are Muslims, and the leaders of Christians actually living in Jerusalem begged Trump not to do this. But not being registered Republicans, those are not the Christians he cares about.
As for the well-being or effectiveness of Americans abroad, Team Trump has long since made abundantly clear their view that the only good U.S. diplomat is a U.S. diplomat who has died in circumstances politically embarrassing to Hillary Clinton. A president who starves, guts and shames the State Department is not a president who values its personnel or mourns the death of their efforts.
For almost all of pre-Trump American history, it was said that politics stopped at the water’s edge. Not anymore. In our time of Trump, politics knows no bounds.