Trump’s Saudi/Israeli First Foreign Policy

President Trump boasts about his America First foreign policy committed to “jobs, jobs, jobs,” except when he parrots the Saudi-Israeli hatred of Iran, a hostility that hurts U.S. interests and costs jobs, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

In his first inaugural address, one of President Barack Obama’s messages to America’s adversaries was that “we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” A few years later, the unclenching of Iran’s fist was marked by the election of reformist Hassan Rouhani and the entry of Iran into negotiations with the United States and five other powers, leading to a detailed agreement in which Iran accepted severe limitations on, and intrusive scrutiny of, its nuclear program and closed all possible pathways to possible acquisition of a nuclear weapon.

President Trump meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel on May 22, 2017. (Screenshot from

Today, as far as U.S.-Iranian relations are concerned, the clenched fist is found in Washington, in the form of the Trump administration’s vehement, relentlessly expressed, and unqualified hostility toward Iran. This hostility is one of the few constants in a Trump foreign policy that otherwise is laden with inconsistencies and flip-flops.

As vividly displayed in the President’s speeches at the first two stops of his current foreign trip, the hostility toward Iran has taken on the character of automatically expressed dogma, seemingly divorced from actual events in, or involving, Iran and with no apparent attention to the specific interests of each country and where they conflict or converge.

Whatever political, rhetorical, or visceral purposes this hostility serves, it has major costs. The costs arise from the hostility itself and from policies that flow from it, either directly as established by the Trump administration or indirectly by encouraging damaging actions by the U.S. Congress and setting a tone that sustains political support for the damaging actions. The policies in question involve rejection of any positive cooperation with Iran and support only for isolation and punishment of, and aggressive confrontation against, Iran.

The costs exist no matter what position one may take regarding the degree and nature of Iranian transgressions, or how these transgressions compare with those of other states in the Middle East. The costs are first and foremost to U.S. interests, and to what most Americans would agree are U.S. interests. But more specifically, the costs include damage to some of the very objectives that President Trump has enunciated.

Costs of the tightly clenched fist include the following ten.

–Impeding resolution of regional problems. Like it or not, Iran is a major player in the Middle East. A nation of 80 million people will not go away, nor will it curl up and pretend it is not part of its region and not be heavily involved in its region. No solutions to problems such as the highly destructive war in Syria will be possible without full Iranian involvement. Attempting instead to isolate Iran will make would-be solutions infeasible and give Iran an incentive to be a spoiler.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei sitting next to President Hassan Rouhani and addressing the cabinet.

–Misunderstanding regional problems. Coming to believe one’s own rhetoric is a common fault. To the extent that the Trump administration starts making policy based on the belief that Iran really is the root of all security problems in the Middle East, the result will be policy that is misinformed and thus misdirected and ineffective.

When Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who is supposed to be one of the adults in the Trump administration but has at least as much of a personal fixation on Iran as does any other senior figure in the administration, says that the three gravest problems in the Middle East are “Iran, Iran, Iran,” he is doing a disservice. There is no one root cause or origin of the serious security problems in that region, and to preach that there is such a single cause is a recipe for bad policy.

–Risking the loss of nuclear restraints on Iran. Iran so far has complied with its extensive obligations under the nuclear agreement — a fact the Trump administration grudgingly had to acknowledge even while trying to offset that acknowledgment with as much of its anti-Iran rhetoric as possible.

The main uncertainty regarding compliance is on the U.S. side. The anti-Iran drumbeat has encouraged some members of the Congress to march toward enacting legislation that includes provisions that would directly violate U.S. obligations under the agreement. If the laboriously negotiated nuclear agreement were to die because of U.S. noncompliance, the alternative would not be some unicorn-like “better deal”; it instead would be no deal and a return to unrestricted Iranian ability to spin as many centrifuges as it likes and to produce as much fissile material as it likes.

–Isolating the United States and estranging it from its most important allies. The other powers that negotiated, and are parties to, the nuclear agreement — Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China — are all firmly resolved to uphold the agreement and to build on it in developing more normal diplomatic and commercial relations with Iran. To the extent the United States moves in a different direction, then it, not Iran, is the odd one out.

–Losing American jobs. As the Europeans, as well as the Russians and Chinese, develop their commercial relations with Iran, American companies are losing business. U.S. sanctions against Iran already have cost U.S. business hundreds of billions in lost revenue. A prospective sale by Boeing of civilian airliners to Iran — a sale that Trump has criticized and that some Republicans in Congress are trying to derail — would support, according to Boeing, nearly 100,000 jobs at the company and its suppliers.

–Directing international blame at the United States for impeding moves toward peace. As long as the U.S. administration is the odd one out on issues such as the nuclear agreement and its aftermath, the costs go beyond the self-inflicted economic damage and specific differences with the other parties to the agreement. There also is the wider opprobrium that comes from being the recalcitrant one. That opprobrium will underlie suspicion and cynicism about anything else this administration says about seeking peace, especially in the Middle East.

–Promoting hardline Iranian policies and leaders. Iran, like other countries, has real politics. Also like other countries, the politics are influenced by what is inflicted on the country from abroad. It is foolish to pretend that all contending politicians in Tehran constitute an undifferentiated mass and that Iran will be horrible no matter who holds office within the structure of the existing regime.

It is especially foolish to cling to that assumption in the wake of the election that gave Rouhani a second term. A strong majority – and even the Supreme Leader in Iran cannot ignore the election returns — supported Rouhani’s rejection of hardline policies, but his support will be sustainable only if the economic improvement that has come to be associated with sanctions relief and improved external economic relations comes to pass.

To undercut Rouhani with U.S. policies that center only on isolation and sanctions would be a gift to Iranian hardliners who support the sorts of external policies that we most dislike.

–Trashing the concept of America First. To follow the nothing-but-hostility-and-isolation approach to Iran is to outsource U.S. foreign policy to other states that do not have U.S. interests at heart, and to two other states in particular: Saudi Arabia and Israel. Such outsourcing may make for congeniality with the local rulers during visits to those countries, but it diminishes Trump’s chances of making progress on the very matters on which he said during the trip he wants to make progress.

President Donald Trump touches lighted globe with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Saudi King Salman and Donald Trump at the opening of Saudi Arabia’s Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology on May 21, 2017. (Photo from Saudi TV)

For Saudi Arabia, highlighting Iran as a demon, besides pushing the Saudis’ side of a local rivalry and sustaining rather than lessening tension in the Persian Gulf, is an excuse for further repression of Shia populations, and such repression makes terrorism and other forms of political violence more, rather than less, likely.

For Israel, the constant assertion that Iran is “the real” source of all trouble in the region is the best possible diverter of attention from its occupation of the Palestinian territories. Trump’s singing from the same sheet of music makes it all the less likely that the Israeli government will feel pressure to make the decisions necessary for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ever to be resolved, as Trump claims he wants.

–Losing a channel for defusing of tensions. A useful byproduct of the negotiations on the nuclear agreement was establishment of communications at the foreign minister level that could be used to address other problems, even in the absence of full diplomatic relations. We saw the value of that channel when U.S. naval craft strayed inexcusably into Iranian territorial waters. Addressing the situation in the foreign minister channel was key to getting quick return of the U.S. sailors. Now that channel is gone, and the Trump administration shows no interest in re-establishing it. The next time a similar incident occurs, the subsequent step might be escalation into a crisis rather than repatriation of Americans.

–Risking a new Middle East war. Donald Trump probably does not want a new war, and during the presidential campaign he said things that suggested to some ears that he would be less likely than his opponent to get into one. But there are people who would welcome war with Iran and will seize on events to try to spark one. And there are people who evidently have the President’s ear — Secretary Mattis, for one — who favor the sort of confrontational approach toward Iran that increases the chance of events spinning out of control.

The lack of a channel for defusing tensions and resolving misunderstandings—and the overall climate of hostility that the administration’s rhetoric has done so much to build up — make that chance disturbingly large.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is author most recently of Why America Misunderstands the World. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)



George W. Bush’s Horrific Legacy

As part of the drive to drive President Trump from the White House, some “never-Trumpers” are rehabilitating George W. Bush as a relative “moderate” and thus whitewashing his war crimes, notes Lawrence Davidson.

By Lawrence Davidson

There is an ongoing reality that is destroying hundreds of thousands of lives in the Middle East. And though most Americans are ignorant of the fact, and many of those who should be in the know would deny it, the suffering flows directly from decisions taken by Washington over the last 27 years.

President George W. Bush announcing the start of his invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003.

Some of the facts of the matter have just been presented by the first Global Conflict Medicine Congress held at the American University of Beirut (AUB) earlier this month (May 11-14, 2017). It has drawn attention to two dire consequences of the war policies Americans have carried on in the region: cancer-causing munition material and drug-resistant bacteria.

Cancer-causing munition material: Materials such as tungsten and mercury are found in the casing of penetrating bombs used in the first and second Gulf wars. These have had long-term effects on survivors, especially those who have been wounded by these munitions. Iraqi-trained and Harvard-educated Dr. Omar Dewachi, a medical anthropologist at AUB fears that “the base line of cancers [appearing in those exposed to these materials] has become very aggressive. … When a young woman of 30, with no family history of cancer, has two different primary cancers – in the breast and in the oesophagus – you have to ask what is happening.” To this can be added that doctors are now “overwhelmed by the sheer number of [war] wounded patients in the Middle East.”

Drug-resistant bacteria: According to Glasgow-trained Professor Ghassan Abu-Sittah, head of plastic and reconstructive surgery at AUB Medical Center, drug resistance was not a problem during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988. However, after the fiasco of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, things began to change. In the period after 1990, Iraq suffered under a vicious sanctions regime imposed by the United Nations at U.S. insistence. During the next 12 years “Iraqis were allowed to use only three antibiotics” and bacterial resistance quickly evolved. Those resistant bacteria spread throughout the region, particularly after the American invasion of the country in 2003.

Today, according to a Medecins Sans Frontieres analysis, “multidrug resistant [MDR] bacteria now accounts for most war wound infections across the Middle East, yet most medical facilities in the region do not even have the laboratory capacity to diagnose MDR, leading to significant delays and clinical mismanagement of festering wounds.”

Insofar as these developments go, it is not that there aren’t contributing factors stemming from local causes such as factional fighting. However, the major triggers for these horrors were set in motion in Washington. As far as I know, no American holding a senior official post has ever accepted any responsibility for this ongoing suffering.

Hiding Reality

As the cancers and untreatable infections grow in number in the Middle East, there is here in the United States a distressing effort to rehabilitate George W. Bush, the American president whose decisions and policies contributed mightily to this ongoing disaster. It is this Bush who launched the unjustified 2003 invasion of Iraq and thereby — to use the words of the Arab League — “opened the gates of hell.”

At the start of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, President George W. Bush ordered the U.S. military to conduct a devastating aerial assault on Baghdad, known as “shock and awe.”

His rehabilitation effort began in ernest in April 2013, and coincided with the opening of his presidential library. In an interview given at that time, Bush set the stage for his second coming with an act of self-exoneration. He said he remained “comfortable with the decision making process” that led to the invasion of Iraq — the one that saw him fudging the intelligence when it did not tell him what he wanted to hear — and so also “comfortable” with the ultimate determination to launch the invasion.

“There’s no need to defend myself. I did what I did and ultimately history will judge,” he said.

The frivolous assertion that “history will judge” is often used by people of suspect character. “History” stands for a vague future time. Its alleged inevitable coming allows the protagonist to fantasize about achieving personal glory unchallenged by present, usually significant, ethical concerns.

Those seeking George W. Bush’s rehabilitation now like to contrast him to Donald Trump. One imagines they thereby hope to present him as a “moderate” Republican. They claim that Bush was and is really a very smart and analytical fellow rather than the simpleton most of us suspect him to be.

In other words, despite launching an unnecessary and subsequently catastrophic war, he was never as ignorant and dangerous as Trump. He and his supporters also depict him as a great defender of a free press, again in contrast to Donald Trump. However, when he was president, Bush described the media as an aider and abettor of the nation’s enemies. This certainly can be read as a position that parallels Trump’s description of the media as the “enemy of the American people.”

But all of this is part of a public relations campaign and speaks to the power of reputation remodeling — the creation of a facade that hides reality. In order to do this you have to “control the evidence” — in this case by ignoring it. In this endeavor George W. Bush and his boosters have the cooperation of much of the mainstream media. No sweat here: the press has done this before.

Except for the odd editorial the mainstream media also contributed to Richard Nixon’s rehabilitation back in the mid 1980s. These sorts of sleights-of-hand are only possible against the background of pervasive public ignorance.

Closed Information Environments

Local happenings are open to relatively close investigation. We usually have a more or less accurate understanding of the local context in which events play out, and this allows for the possibility of making a critical judgment. As we move further away, both in space and time, information becomes less reliable, if for no other reason than it comes to us through the auspices of others who may or may not know what they are talking about.

President George W. Bush in a flight suit after landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln to give his “Mission Accomplished” speech about the Iraq War on May 1, 2003.

As a society, we have little or no knowledge of the context for foreign events, and thus it is easy for those reporting on them to apply filters according to any number of criteria. What we are left with is news that is customized — stories designed to fit preexisting political or ideological biases. In this way millions upon millions of minds are restricted to closed information environments on subjects which often touch on, among other important topics, war and its consequences.

So what is likely to be more influential with the locally oriented American public: George W. Bush’s rehabilitated image reported on repeatedly in the nation’s mainstream media, or the foreign-based, horror-strewn consequences of his deeds reported upon infrequently?

This dilemma is not uniquely American, nor is it original to our time. But its dangerous consequences are a very good argument against the ubiquitous ignorance that allows political criminals to be rehabilitated even as their crimes condemn others to continuing suffering.

If reputation remodelers can do this for George W. Bush, then there is little doubt that someday it will be done for Donald Trump. Life, so full of suffering, is also full of such absurdities.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism. He blogs at


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