A Tangled Web: America, Saudi Arabia, and Israel
From “the best and the brightest” in JFK’s White House thinking they could remake the world to their image to Donald Trump’s White House believing that the best policy is anything that Barack Obama opposed, American foreign policy makers have demonstrated how they fail to understand history.
John F. Kennedy’s foreign policy team was sure the lesson of appeasing Hitler in 1938 was that the US had to stand up to communist expansion in Vietnam. The problem was they also failed to remember that Germany made the opposite mistake in 1914 by propping up the Austro-Hungarian Empire, even though that meant plunging Europe into World War I.
What does this have to do with the Trump administration and US-Israeli relations under the threat of Iran?
Donald Trump is a self-declared “America Firster” with an isolationist aversion to all foreign wars — except trade wars with China. However, his powerful countervailing impulse is to undo Obama administration policies, even if this means going counter to his own instincts. Hence, he withdrew from Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran at the same time as he reversed Obama’s distancing from Israel.
It’s becoming clearer by the day that Trump is in over his head in the Middle East. Obama’s deal with Iran may have been weak and shameful, but Trump should not have repudiated it without a game plan to cope with Iran’s likely response of reckless escalation, most recently against Saudi oil fields.
Though Trump was right to rally around embattled Israel, he should have supported it more subtly than with his full-throated, and now embarrassing, political embrace of Benjamin Netanyahu.
In all probability, Trump will now do everything he can to avoid war with Iran, even if that means seriously undermining the problematic US alliance with the Saudis and weakening our vital ties to the Israelis. Maybe he has no good alternatives, given the mistakes he has already made.
I am equally concerned about Trump’s critics. That they will continue to flail him for being humiliated by Iran is of course predictable, especially heading into the 2020 presidential election. Much worse in my view is that there seems to be a subtext to the drumbeat of criticism that his Saudi alliance is ill-advised, and that we should allow the Saudis to “go it alone” against the Iranians and maybe write them off altogether.
Paranoid or not, I fear future pressure that we should abandon Israel, just as we are being urged now to dispense with Saudi Arabia. It may be necessary to restructure the US-Saudi relationship, but it could be disastrous to use that as an excuse for betraying Israel.
Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).