When Donald Trump delivered remarks yesterday announcing his new U.S. policy in Israel, the president seemed eager to tell the world how impressed he is with himself. “While previous presidents have made this a major campaign promise,” he said, “they failed to deliver. Today, I am delivering.”
Ordinarily, when a president announces a dramatic shift in foreign policy, he’ll explain why the change advances U.S. interests. Yesterday, however, Trump didn’t bother. Indeed, a Washington Post report suggested he may not fully understand what he just did.
Several advisers said he did not seem to have a full understanding of the issue and instead appeared to be focused on “seeming pro-Israel,” in the words of one, and “making a deal,” in the words of another. […]
The debate came to a head at a White House meeting Nov. 27 to hash out the waiver issue. According to people briefed on the meeting, Trump repeated his earlier assertions that he had to follow through on his campaign pledge, seemingly irritated by objections over security and the break with previous policy.
“The decision wasn’t driven by the peace process,” one senior official said. “The decision was driven by his campaign promise.”
The circumstances are more than a little scary. During the campaign, some of Trump’s allies and donors told them they cared deeply about the United States moving its embassy to Jerusalem and a diplomatic recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The then-Republican candidate agreed to their appeals without any meaningful understanding of the position he was endorsing.
As president, Trump started with a political posture – make his base happy, do what other modern presidents wouldn’t do – and worked backwards, instructing his staff to formulate a policy that would bolster his political calculation.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson advised him not to do this, and he didn’t care. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis encouraged the president to pursue a different course, and Trump ignored him, too. U.S. allies from across the globe implored the president to be more responsible, and Trump paid them no mind.
Because in the end, the president cared less about pursuing a sensible policy and more about saying “I am delivering” for the cameras.
A New York Times report added that Trump “seemed to relish playing a familiar role: the political insurgent, defying foreign policy orthodoxy on behalf of the people who elected him.”
In other words, explaining to Trump the importance of maintaining a delicate security balance, honored by both American parties and U.S. allies, doesn’t work – because he’s the kid who enjoys tearing down the tower of blocks, not the one who likes to build it.
This was true with the Paris climate accord, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, his Muslim ban, and now with his policy toward Israel.
Predictably, most of the world responded with disgust yesterday, with officials from allied countries using words like “dangerous” and “catastrophic.” The United Nations secretary general spoke of his “great anxiety,” while the European Union expressed “serious concern.”
It’s not hard to imagine Donald J. Trump, proud of the policy he doesn’t understand, learning of these reactions and saying, “Good.”