Back in 2008 during the McCain / Obama debates, then-Senator Obama asked McCain why the United States doesn’t have diplomatic relations with countries like Iran. What is wrong, he asked, with just talking? McCain fumbled about and muttered that it just isn’t done.
What McCain should have said:
- The United States does “talk” to countries like Iran – there are back channel communications all the time.
- The level of communication depends on the level of trust. Iran has never given evidence of being a good-faith negotiator.
Obama was to be commended however in thinking that U.S. foreign policy was in danger of hardening into positions of friend / enemy that didn’t serve American diplomatic interests, or the interests of world peace. To that end, Obama adopted an anti-Israel (or at least anti-Netanyahu) stance and attempted to normalize relations with Iran. In the abstract there is nothing wrong with trying to improve relations with Iran, it is an ancient culture and the current regime will not last forever, but Iran took Obama’s position as permission to run amok in the Middle East. Again, Iran was never a good faith negotiator. I suppose Obama and his diplomats knew that and were instead playing the long game.
Even as Obama was attempting to disrupt what he saw as outdated and unrealistic foreign policy he too was probably blinded by ideology, the tendency of leftists to blame America for everything and deny agency to non-Westerners. Obama was the sort of ideologue who always called himself a pragmatist.
And Obama violated a common sense diplomacy of being good to your allies and mean to your enemies. The Israelis and the Gulf Arabs – official enemies with each other but both allied with the U.S. – were horrified by the shift in U.S. foreign policy and increased their own tacit cooperation.
The process that started as a reaction to Obama’s attempted detente with Iran has now grown into open diplomatic relations between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain. The Saudis have opened their airspace to Israeli commercial aircraft and (I have to imagine that) without Saudi encouragement their close allies in UAE and Bahrain would not have taken these steps. Mohammed Bin Salman has got to be deeply involved.
How much credit should Trump get for all this? Trump, like Obama, saw U.S. foreign policy as being too hidebound. He too put a great deal of trust in his own ability to shake things up and make deals: his attempt at wooing North Korea was about as audacious and unlikely to succeed as Obama’s attempt to woo Iran, the difference being that Trump never gave North Korea anything of value. Like Obama, Trump seems to think diplomacy is preferable to military action.
Trump did much to improve relations with Saudi Arabia and Trump’s personal diplomat Jared Kushner invested many months building relationships across the Middle East. Trump also left Israel alone to handle its security as it saw fit and recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Kushner’s plan for peace with the Palestinians – trade land for cash – was a non-starter. One commentator dismissed it as terms of surrender (which is what you get if you are always losing wars) but it was probably worked out with the advice of the Gulf monarchs and the Palestinian rejection of the deal was likely a signal to them that the Palestinians could not be taken seriously. Netanyahu did drop his recent bid to annex more of the West Bank in return for the peace deal with the UAE, which may have been the plan all along.
As for Iran, Trump revoked Obama’s deal (which was never ratified by the Senate) rattled his sabre with all his might, and took financial measures against the country. Iran took it all as bluster since Trump was obviously skittish about using force. Trump’s refusal to use lethal force to retaliate for Iran’s shooting down of a drone was interpreted as weakness and Iran doubled down on its adventurism in Iraq and Syria, resulting in Trump ordering the assassination of Qasem Soliemani, which contrary to all media expectations succeeded in reducing tensions: there was simply nothing Iran could do about it.
(Interestingly, the Israelis had been planning to assassinate Soliemani in 2015 but Obama foiled the plot by telling Iran about it.)
If Biden wins the upcoming election it will probably bring former Obama foreign policy experts back into power, which would mean a pro-Iran administration, which is what (I suspect) is driving the current flurry of peace deals: get them done now under an anti-Iran, pro-Israeli and pro-Saudi American President so a future President will have to deal with a new reality of an Arab-Israeli alliance.
The negative conditions were set by Obama’s Iran deal, but Trump should receive credit for building relationships and recognizing opportunities in spite of the conventional wisdom that the Palestinian questions was central (it wasn’t), Jerusalem should not be the capital of Israel (no one but the Palestinians cared), the Saudis are barbarians who can’t be trusted (they are barbarians who can cut a deal). Nobel prizes have been handed out for much less, ask Obama.
If I had to guess why Trump has been successful where Obama was not, it is probably that the opportunity for Arab-Israeli peace was actually there, while the opportunity for detente with Iran was a lefty pipe-dream. Trump the real-estate developer probably has a better sense than Obama the academic of what people’s actual interests are, rather than an abstract sense of what their interests should be.