President Trump’s announcement that he, unlike other recent presidents, really is going to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel accomplished several goals, many of them beneficial, all of them revealing about the unorthodox 45th chief executive.
It showed Trump fulfilling a major campaign promise, for once unfettered by congressional GOP laggards. It earned him a burst of positive publicity among supporters of that major ally, a rare bastion of diverse democracy in a region chronically torn by tumult and violence.
Trump’s bold announcement also sets him apart from recent presidents of both parties, who made numerous similar vows, then diddled their promises into easy inaction and oblivion.
Trump likes setting himself apart. "While previous presidents have made this a major campaign promise, they failed to deliver," Trump said in a 12-minute statement. "Today, I am delivering." To ensure his message of ultimate peace was delivered in Trump’s own words, the White House did its own Arabic translation for simultaneous release.
It’s important to note, however, that despite his decisive declaration to become the only nation so recognizing Jerusalem, Trump hasn’t actually moved the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem either. That will take years of site acquisition, design and negotiations. Plenty of time to diddle, if necessary.
“This is nothing more, or less, than a recognition of reality,” he added. “It is also the right thing to do.”
Although both parties’ platforms and prominent spokesmen agree on Israel’s right to choose its own capital — not really an outrageous concept, if you think about it — D.C. establishment leaders have failed to act, leaving U.S. action as hostage to threatened Arab reaction. On cue, after Trump’s statement the rock-throwing began.
Predictably, much of Trump’s U.S. media coverage was colorized by hand-wringing over violence and what such a rash pro-Israeli move by this impulsive American would do to the Mideast peace process.
What peace process? It’s been moribund for 17 percent of this century and the end of the last one. Ever since 2000 when Yasser Arafat inexplicably rejected the U.S. offer of a separate Palestinian state.
Despite all the shuttle flights, photo-ops and yada-yada, nothing has come of mainly U.S. diplomatic efforts to broker a lasting settlement. More failures. More violence anyway.
And here is what’s so revealing about this Trump move: He’s not burdened by that depressing precedent. For better and worse, he’s an outsider unshackled by a self-defeating link to conventional wisdom, conventional wisdom that confines thinking only to what has been tried. If that hasn’t worked, only more of the same might.
“When I came into office,” Trump said, “I promised to look at the world’s challenges with open eyes and very fresh thinking. Old challenges demand new approaches.”
Trump was elected by millions sick and tired of Washington’s bipartisan ineffectiveness. They wanted someone to disrupt the comfortable capital’s standard operating procedures, quite threatening to D.C. denizens.
Also, Trump’s inarticulateness and sometimes self-defeating impulsiveness (see Firing, James Comey) give opponents ample opportunity and ammo to criticize the brash rookie and to stoke wide Trump antipathy.
This president may not have an obvious orthodox method to his diplomacy. But he does have a clear and decisive pattern. It’s more rooted in common-sense reality than in diplomatic dreaminess.
Have the old ways of “strategic patience” convinced North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program?
Clearly, not. So, let’s try a tougher approach. Predictably, as with the Palestinians, media focus on Kim Jong Un’s feared reaction, not his existential threat to the homeland.
Was President Barack Obama’s full-throated but half-hearted fight effective against the ISIS JV? Clearly, no. So, unleash U.S. aircraft, special operators and allies to do what needs doing, not to chase away terrorists but extinguish them.
Has requesting NATO allies to boost defense spending up to their promised two percent of GDP worked? Clearly, not. So, Trump mumbles about the possible obsolescence of such alliances, among other things. And, oh, look, some defense programs are now growing.
Did Obama’s phony red line prevent Syria from using chemical weapons on its own people? Uh, no. So, two days after this year’s incident Trump orders 59 Tomahawk missiles to devastate the originating airfield.
After eight years of Obama apologias and timid foreign inaction beyond empty words and ineffective sanctions, it will clearly take some time to reconstruct international credibility in the threat of U.S. force and its president’s willingness to use it.
Trump’s seemingly unpredictable bad-cop routine is essential. Hopefully, we have the time for this. And he has the consistency.
Malcolm is an author and veteran national and foreign correspondent covering politics since the 1960s. Follow him @AHMalcolm.