Clueless Trump

The Trump administration is in disarray.

U.S. President Donald Trump arrives at Newark International airport, June 9, 2017. (photo credit: REUTERS/YURI GRIPAS/FILE PHOTO)
U.S. President Donald Trump arrives at Newark International airport, June 9, 2017.
On a single day at the job at the White House, US President Donald Trump publicly iterated seven falsehoods. Some of the misleading statements made Tuesday that were picked up by The New York Times had to do with domestic matters, such as Trump’s untrue claim that he added over a million jobs during his stint as president, or that the veterans’ medical records system is “fixed” or that insurance premiums have doubled or tripled since the Affordable Care Act was passed.
Others had to do with the Iran nuclear deal, military spending and immigration.
One of his erroneous comments, which referred to Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon, should arouse Israeli suspicions, particularly as America and Russia implement a cease-fire in southwest Syria and prepare for the day after the Syrian civil war, with all the ramifications this has for Lebanon and Hezbollah.
During a press conference in the Rose Garden with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Trump made the astonishing claim that Lebanon was “on the front lines in the fight” against Hezbollah. Clearly, Trump has a less than satisfactory grasp of geopolitics in Lebanon.
And if he does not understand who is against whom in Lebanon, he is probably not too well briefed on what is going on in Syria either.
For the record, Hezbollah is a central partner in the Lebanese government. It effectively controls the most powerful military force in the country. President of Lebanon Michel Aoun, a Christian, is a staunch ally of Hezbollah.
And while Hariri is no supporter of Hezbollah, whose terrorists were responsible for the assassination of his father, Rafik, he is in no position to confront it either.
Just a few months ago Hariri publicly expressed hope that US politicians would reconsider a bill seeking to place sanctions on Hezbollah. He argued that such sanctions would be “harsh on Lebanon,” according to the Beirut-based Daily Star. Ostensibly, Hariri’s opposition to sanctions was out of concern that such steps would destabilize Lebanon’s banking sector. But it is more than that. Hezbollah wields tremendous influence over Lebanese politics. Its influence is so extensive that it is difficult if not impossible to distinguish between Shi’ite political parties and Hezbollah-linked groups. As Hezbollah is ultimately a proxy of Iran, Lebanon is, to a large extent, a state under heavy Iranian influence.
Former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon was presenting an extreme version of this perspective when he said last month in an interview with Elaph, a Saudi news website, that “there is no nation called Lebanon, the decisions are made by Iran and not by the president or [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah.”
Ya’alon was sending a message to the Lebanese people: If Hezbollah attacks Israel, all of Lebanon will pay the price of Israel’s retaliation. Today, more than in 2006 during the Second Lebanon War, the line between Lebanon and Hezbollah is indistinguishable; so, by extension, is the line between Lebanon and Iran. If Hezbollah were to make the foolish mistake of escalating tension on the northern border, Israel has made clear that it would make no attempt to differentiate between Lebanon and Hezbollah, because that distinction barely exists.
Trump does not seem to understand this, which can cause problems for Israel should it be dragged into a confrontation with Hezbollah. It is imperative, therefore, that Israel make it clear to the White House that Lebanon and Hezbollah are inextricably connected.
Understanding this is essential to understanding Israel’s displeasure with the Syrian cease-fire agreement reached between Washington and Moscow that leaves Iranian and Hezbollah influence in Syria largely intact.
The Trump administration is in disarray. The president has failed to achieve a single legislative victory whether on healthcare or anything else, despite enjoying Republican majorities in Congress; the probe of ties with Russia has targeted key figures in the administration; Trump’s crass comments on Twitter have undermined the respect normally extended to a US president; and his recent attack on Attorney-General Jeff Sessions threatens to spark a Republican revolt.
Israelis should be concerned about how this disarray affects American policy in Syria and Lebanon and, by extension, Iran’s growing influence in the region.