Featured Post

New book available! David Kaiser, A Life in History

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published my autobiography as an historian,  A Life in History.   Long-time readers who want to find out how th...

Friday, May 11, 2018

Trump and foreign powers

Since Donald Trump took office, and increasingly as more evidence has come to light, we have been wondering whether he is somehow under the influence of the Russian government.  That is a very reasonable suspicion.  Paul Manafort, Ray Flynn,  and Carter Page all held important positions in the Trump campaign or the Trump administration, and all of them have clear ties to Russian and Russian interests.  So does his attorney Michael Cohen.  Jeff Sessions and Flynn both seem to have discussed lifting sanctions with the Russians during the campaign.  And the Trump Administration refused for some time to impose new congresssionally mandated sanctions on Russia, although it eventually did.  The Russians clearly waged information warfare to help elect Trump Yet it is fair to say that the Trump Administration has done relatively little to help the Russians in its 16 months in office--perhaps, of course, because anything more that it did would look so suspicious.

The situation is quite different, however, with respect to two other foreign powers with longstanding influence in Washington.  There appears to be nothing that these foreign governments want that they cannot get out of the Trump Administration.  Both have had a lot of Washington leverage for a long time but both have now gotten things that they could not get from any previous administration.  Those powers are Israel and Saudi Arabia.

In the past year, Donald Trump has given Benjamin Netanyahu three things that Netanyahu and his predecessors could not get from other US Presidents.   First, he has officially abandoned US insistence on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian question.  Secondly, he has agreed to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, which nine previous presidents had declined to do.  And last week, he backed out of the Iran agreement, allowing Israel to unleash a war against the Iranian presence in Syria, and very possibly paving the way for a much bigger war against Iran itself.  Netanyahu, as an excellent Frontline documentary showed, was very close to dragging the US into that war before the Obama Administration and the rest of the great powers of the world reached the nuclear agreement with Iran.  Now things may start moving in that direction again. 

The Saudis, under the leadership of their dynamic, authoritarian new Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman , are also enjoying new signs of Washington's favor.  They have concluded a $23.7 billion arms deal with Washington, which may eventually rise to over $100 billion.  They are getting encouragement, intelligence, and actual assistance from American military personnel in their war against the Houthi rebels in Yemen.  The United States government appears to have decided to back Riyadh and the Sunnis against Tehran and the Shiites in the new Thirty Years War that threatens to wreak havoc in the Middle East for many years to come.

Other Administrations--most recently that of George W. Bush--have bent over backwards to curry favor with Jerusalem and Riyadh, but neither went that far.  One channel of influence on Trump appears to be Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas casino magnate and megadonor, whose wife is Israeli and who emerged late in 2016 as a big donor to Trump's campaign.   No evidence has surfaced that Trump is under some financial obligation to either of these powers, or that one or both of them may have damaging information about him.  But Trump certainly left some grounds for suspicion when he turned one of the most complex foreign policy issues the US faces--the Middle East peace process--over to his son-in-law Jared Kushner.  Kushner is apparently bypassing the entire State Department and dealing personally with the Israelis and Saudis.  This understandably caused friction with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has now been replaced by Mike Pompeo.  It seems to me entirely possible that Kushner knows things about his father-in-law's relationships with Israel and/or Saudi Arabia that cannot be shared with professional American diplomats.

Benjamin Netanyahu--who, like Donald Trump, is under great pressure from official investigations within his own country--seems determined to take advantage of the opportunity offered by Trump, perhaps to impose some kind of one-state solution on the Palestinians, and perhaps to wage war against Iran.  Trump seems quite willing to allow him to do this.  We don't know why.  I don't like raising these possibilities in the absence of the kind of evidence we have about Trump and the Russians, but circumstantial evidence is much better evidence than is commonly supposed.  The circumstantial evidence for some kind of secret connection between Trump and the Israeli government--and perhaps the Saudi government--is significant, and a long-tine Washington insider and observer with whom I shared my speculation about Israel agreed with me on this.


Energyflow said...

Trump's motivations are hard to see. By all accounts hardest of hardliners have taken over, Bolton, Pompeo. Maybe it is just the fact he is from NYC. Kushner's family were Trump family archrivals for generations in real estate construction development business. Trump is a risk taking businessman. Since business life can be very active, involve endless creative destruction and is not for the slow, timid or weak at heart, particularly in New York corrupt, brutal construction industry we can expect Trump to play all his cards quickly to see if he can change the general situation, if only out of pure boredom. We saw the Korea thing go down and he apparently got results. The Chinese and Russians got Kim to back down out of general fear over Trump's unpredictability.

Neocon goal was always Iran. Israel's too. Now Trump's gung ho is that direction. Our military reined in his Syria attack to a limited one but the JCPOA agreement is nonmilitary. He has to fight foreign allies, Russia, China over sanctions renewal and let Netanyahu and the apparently foolish young MBS of Saudi Arabia have their way in Middle East. Unfortunately a new big war there coud be their undoing, and put paid to any trust in USA foreign polcy. Reliability, trustworthiness, common sense all zero points on testing. Creative destruction, just doing something out of frustration, ADS type fidgety kid syndrome, listening to worst devil on your shoulder seems to be Trump's Modus Operandi. Wisdom coming with age is not a boomer thing apparently, at least not for spoiled rich and powerful who always got their way. Obama had not a hard life but had to get along. Trump learned that rule of jungle was best way to survive. He always seems to land with bullies, bad guys by instinct alone. You are probably barking up wrong tree searching for corruption or hidden interests on his side. He played friendly with Putin early on because of his macho aura, like Berlusconi, men friendship. He likes to brawl. Kim was ideal candidate for friendship. Now Iran/Saudi/Israel. We have given keys of kingdom to a 3 year old hyperactive child. Either everyone in Middle East will end up dead in the end or hugging and kissing like in Korea. Trump will either get multiple Nobel Peacce Prizes for every region of earth or make Hitler look like Mother Theresa. At home in USA Antifa and neonazis , NRA, religios right will all kiss up and make nice before Trump is finished. Trump fatigue will be buzzword of the decade if not longer. My way or the highway was Bush motto. Trump catalyzes, escalates conflicts to resolve them. Deep state, military, rich, bankers get all they want then go bankrupt, Chinese, Russian switch from USD, form alliances out of mortal fear,, EU goes from NATO, breaks apart. Left and right tear each other apart. Trump is The Great Conflictor. Was Nero really so bad?

CrocodileChuck said...

"The Russians clearly waged information warfare to help elect Trump" [SNIP]

What? An Internet Troll Farm that spent $12,000 on Facebook advertising?

THAT'S gonna shake 242 years of US democracy to its foundations!

The Democrats lost because they fielded the worst candidate in history.

How else could the WH incumbent have won?

Let's face facts: its been > 20 months since the FBI launched its 'witch hunt' and what have they come up with?

Bozon said...

Thanks for this post. Trouble in river city.
The Iran Russia alliance brought ever more into play, etc.
Long history here, not just yesterday.
As you point out, we are backing Sunnis against Shiites.

But, of course, Saddam was a sort of Ba'ath Sunni... at least his regime was manned by Sunni Arabs...


All the best

Bruce Wilder said...

I appreciate your drawing attention to the dark roles of Netanyahu and MBS, though I would suggest trying out the hypothesis that it is not about Trump, (almost) none of it is about Trump (meaning neither Trump as a deliberate political actor nor Trump's out-sized and vulgar political/media persona). I do not mean to suggest that we should not be deeply disturbed and even repulsed by Trump's authoritarianism and personal ignorance, but it seems to me that what is being revealed to us in the on-going crisis of legitimacy is structural rot. To complain that Trump is not "normal" is to miss the dying of the forest for one flourishing weed pretending to be a tree.

The media's 20+ month obsession with Trump, including especially Russiagate, has shown us that political news media has been replaced by an propaganda operation/entertainment industry with no journalistic standards or purpose. Hours of poorly grounded speculation flood the airwaves after every revelation and many of the revelations are stale or wholly false, while what is true (which is pretty damn bad) receives little humane reflection. Trying to disentangle a thread of truth from the smoke and noise is a waste of brain cells. Some factual and intelligent reporting is out there, but more and more it is starved of resources and attention. Consider this sad report from the Columbia Review of Journalism:
I could not help but be reminded of the piece you wrote comparing a newspaper frontpage from the late 1930s to today.

This isn't about Trump so much as it is about the decayed political ecology in which he seems able to flourish. The influence of Saudi Arabia and Israel is not some new thing, as I am sure you are fully aware, though Trump may be casting aside the last remnants of prudent and cautious restraint as you indicate. More than 15 years ago, a previous Republican administration was discarding habeas corpus, the Geneva Conventions and Nuremberg and that was soon enough normalized by a Democratic Administration that wanted to look forward or some such nonsense and refuse to prosecute banksters or torturers, one of latter is now about to break the glass ceiling at the CIA (oh joy). Tom "six more months" Friedman won a Pulitzer Prize for his cheerleading of the war on terror. You mention the execrable Sheldon Adelson, but the Democrats had Haim Saban, who not only made campaign contributions but practically bought the once-great Brookings Institution. The revelations about Paul Manafort did not show "collusion" of Trump with Russia, but they did reveal a level of corruption in the American political establishment that ought to shock us; it was particularly telling that the first consequence of Paul Manafort's indictment was the resignation of Tony Podesta (John's brother), who apparently had much the same business model.

What is missing, or at least very weak in American political advocacy or policymaking, are the institutional platforms for developing and pressing forward conceptions of American interest, economically or politically. In their absence, we have billionaires with usually short-sighted and ill-considered prejudices pressing their concerns, and unscrupulous and often amoral entrepreneurs offering themselves as manipulators and managers of public opinion.