What Bret Stephens Missed About Trump and Israel
“Donald Trump Is Bad For Israel,” is the headline of Bret Stephens’ column in The New York Times on Thursday.
“Consider the Trump presidency from a purely Israeli standpoint,” Stephens writes.
“The president has abruptly undermined Israel’s security following a phone call with an Islamist strongman in Turkey,” Stephens complains, a reference to “the president’s decision to remove U.S. forces from Syria.”
Trump, Stephens complains, “shows no interest in pushing Russia out of Syria. He has neither articulated nor pursued any coherent strategy for pushing Iran out of Syria. He has all but invited Turkey to interfere in Syria. He has done nothing to prevent Iran from continuing to arm Hezbollah. He shows no regard for the Kurds. His fatuous response to Saudi Arabia’s murder of Jamal Khashoggi is that we’re getting a lot of money from the Saudis.”
Then Stephens asks, “Is any of this good for Israel?” And answers, “if you think that the ultimate long-term threat to Israel is the resurgence of isolationism in the U.S. and a return to the geopolitics of every nation for itself, the answer is more emphatically no.”
Stephens could be right that Trump’s limited pullback, if not full retreat, from the liberal internationalism or “Democratic realism” of some prior administration could be bad for Israel. But there’s a counterargument that Stephens doesn’t mention, let alone rebut, and that is worth considering.
That counterargument is two-pronged.
First, one of the original, profound, and inspiring ideas of Zionism had to do with Jewish self-reliance. The Jewish state would defend itself with its own foreign policy and armed forces, rather than existing at the mercy of, or under the protection of, some foreign colonial power. This is better for the Jews, in part because no matter how closely allied or powerful some foreign country, even America, may seem, in the end those powers have other interests that rank higher than the survival of the Jews. Better for Israel to realize that and act accordingly than to operate under some illusion — a delusion, really — of an American security umbrella. Those of us who have opposed the idea, raised from time to time, of American troops on the Golan Heights or in the Jordan Valley should be similarly skeptical of deploying American troops in Syria for the sake of Israel’s security.
Second, nothing is more likely to hasten a “resurgence of isolationism in the U.S.” — than overly ambitious policy goals, poorly or half-heartedly executed, undertaken without explicit congressional authorization and with little public explanation or support. What led to isolationism? Vietnam. The Iraq War. If Israelis are concerned about American isolationism, they might want America to deploy only to places where they have a clear path to victory, a clear exit strategy, clear authorization from Congress, and where a vital American interest is at stake. It’s not clear that the American deployment in Syria meets this standard. Certainly, an American effort to simultaneously, or in rapid succession, overthrow the governments of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Iran would be risky enough that it, too, could certainly spiral in a direction that led to a resurgence of American isolationism. Maybe it would work out great. But even if Trump decided to go for it, there’s certainly a not insignificant risk that it wouldn’t.
For a more fully developed argument of the downside of a US-led empire for America, Israel, and the world, and of the advantages of nationalism as an alternative, I commend Yoram Hazony’s recent book, The Virtue Of Nationalism. The nice thing about Trump’s move in Syria, for Israel at least, is that it reminds everyone of the most important difference between Israel and the Kurds. The big difference is not that America can be relied on to protect Israel, but not to protect the Kurds. The big difference is that the Jews, unlike the Kurds, have a nation-state of our own, and so are in a position to determine our own destiny rather than to depend or rely on the kindness of others. That is not much consolation to the Kurds. But it is a useful reminder for the Jews, especially those of us American Jews who too often confuse a friendly president with the security that comes from self-determination.
More of Ira Stoll’s media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.