When the United States recognized the Jewish state of Israel, it sent shockwaves throughout the international system. Donald Trump’s recent decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is as historic as Harry Truman’s move in 1948. In fact, the announcement last week is probably the most consequential foreign policy decision of the young Trump Administration.
Of course, there is significant opposition to the decision—not least because it was Trump who made it.
The United States effectively served as midwife to the modern state of Israel during the Truman Administration. President Truman’s decision to recognize Israel as an independent state was met with as much antipathy from American and Arab leaders 69 years ago as Trump’s decision to recognize the holy city of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is meeting now.
Back in Truman’s time, Secretary of State George C. Marshall was so opposed to recognizing Israel that he threatened to vote for Truman’s Republican opponent in the upcoming election during a contentious cabinet meeting. Marshall was the man that Truman had called the “greatest living American” statesman.
Nevertheless, Truman held his own against the intractable Marshall.
The result Truman’s decision to recognize Israel was predictable—and predicted: Arab opinion turned against the United States. What few acknowledged at the time, however, was Arab opinion was already moving away from the West. Islamism was beginning to take root. Soviet Communism was expanding following the end of World War II. Nationalist movements were sprouting up across Africa and the Middle East in the vacuum that decolonization created.
Still, the idea that the Arab world abruptly and universally turned against the United States for the “crime” of recognizing Israel is an overstatement. From the early 1950s until 2003, a general balance of power in the Middle East favored the United States. America empowered secular Arab strongmen, Turkey, and Israel, which in turn maintained stability in the region and created a hedge against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. National and regional interests had a way of overcoming anti-Israeli prejudice.
The case against recognizing Jerusalem as the proper capital of Israel is no different than the case against recognizing Israel itself. And the divisions appear similar, with the president making a decision against the advice of his top advisors. In this instance, National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster fills the Marshall role. McMaster follows a long line of Army strategists who favor a cold, textbook style view of balance-of-power politics. For McMaster, moving closer to Israel could undermine U.S. standing in the region even more than it has sunk since the devastating Iraq War. McMaster also fears that moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem would encourage more Islamic extremism from jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda or the Islamic State, and empower Iran’s already-frightening bid for regional hegemony.
McMaster and other opponents of the president’s decision believe the United States should remain relatively neutral in the face of internal regional dynamics. America’s role should be to play Israel, the Sunni Arabs, and Iran against each other to create a stable balance-of-power. Generally, they’re right. But, they are wrong in understanding how to implement such a strategy.
President Obama believed distancing the United States from Israel, ignoring the rise of Islamist forces in the Arab Spring (even encouraging them, as he did in Egypt and Libya), and moving America closer to Iran could achieve a better sort of stability. On the contrary, Obama’s efforts further destabilized the region and pushed America farther away from everyone there.
The very idea that America could be somehow neutral in Mideast conflicts is bizarre. The moment the United States recognized Israel, it took sides. Our enemies have long memories: they are unlikely to forgive—much less forget—the fact that the United States is Israel’s chief patron in the region.
Risks and Rewards
President Trump is taking a different path from his predecessors. Instead of running away from Israel, he’s emulating Truman and moving America closer. In so doing, Trump is attempting to reinvigorate the old, American-led alliance with Israel and the Sunni Arab states.
What has the reaction been thus far? If anything, the Europeans are more incensed by the Trump Administration’s decision than any of the Arab powers appear to be. This merely confirms the suspicions of the Arab powers whereas it jolts Europeans who are used to doubletalk and hedging, apparently.
Iran, of course, is making diplomatic hay of this move—but that was to be expected. Russia, Iran’s primary benefactor, displayed its true colors when it opted to follow America’s lead and recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, rather than back Iran’s opposition to the decision.
As for the Arab powers, many of them are heartened by Trump’s move (even if they complain publicly about the decision—though, with the exception of Germany, their complaints have been relatively muted). The decision solidified American support for Israel and signaled to America’s Sunni Arab allies that the United States was neither abandoning them nor seeking to create a new balance-of-power that favored Iran (as Obama previously attempted). Whatever happens next, the United States is acting boldly to reassert the old alliance system that had previously kept nominal stability in the region until the quixotic Iraq War.
The bold gambit might end in failure, given how the region has changed since 2003. But the fact that the Trump Administration is all-in with Israel means we’re going to give this gambit everything we’ve got. If we lose, then nothing much has changed (since we’ve been losing the Middle East for 17 years).
If we win, though, the region would have a favorable balance that supports U.S. interests, and Israel—one America’s greatest allies—might enjoy a modicum of peace.
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