COLUMN ONE: Trump and Obama’s third term

The problem is that substantively, there is no real difference between Obama and Trump, not in the Middle East and not anywhere.

Trump, Netanyahu and Obama (photo credit: REUTERS)
Trump, Netanyahu and Obama
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In an interview with Walla news site Tuesday, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said that “the more active the US is [in the Middle East], the better it will be for Israel.”
On paper, Liberman’s sentiments seem reasonable enough. President Donald Trump is far friendlier than his predecessor Barack Obama was. The tone of US-Israel relations has vastly improved since Trump took office.
The problem is that substantively, there is no real difference between the two administrations – not in the Middle East and not anywhere.
Take Iran’s nuclear program for example.
In accordance with the US Nuclear Agreement Review Act (2015), on October 15, Trump is obligated to make his quarterly report to Congress certifying or decertifying Iranian compliance with the terms of the nuclear deal it concluded with Obama two years ago.
The issue of whether or not to certify Iranian compliance has been the beginning, middle and end of all US policy discussions on Iran’s nuclear program since Trump entered office.
Despite Trump’s stated opposition to the deal, his top advisers Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have pressured him into twice certifying Iranian compliance.
On the face of it, the debate about Iranian compliance ought to be about competing interpretations of Iran’s behavior. In practice, though, facts play little role in the discourse.
The Iranians announced as soon as the deal was concluded that they would not permit UN inspectors to enter any nuclear site they define as a “military installation.”
This hollowed out the entire inspections regime.
After all, if Iran can bar inspectors from its nuclear installations, there is no way for inspectors to know if Iran’s nuclear operations accord with or breach of the restrictions it agreed to in the agreement.
In other words, neither Obama nor Trump has had any way to credibly certify Iranian compliance, because the US has no idea what Iran is doing.
And everyone knows this.
Since everyone knows this, the debate about presidential certification of Iranian compliance clearly is not about Iranian compliance.
Instead, the debate has been about one thing only: reality.
Specifically, does reality have a place in US policy regarding the nuclear deal with Iran? Because if reality does have a role to play, obviously, Trump cannot certify Iranian compliance.
To date, proponents of barring reality have won the debate. In testimony Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Mattis said that in his opinion, maintaining the nuclear deal is the US interest. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen.
Joseph Dunford told lawmakers that “Iran is not in material breach” of the accord.
According to an AP report Tuesday, national security officials involved in the recertification process now aim to change the Nuclear Agreement Review Act in a manner that would deny Trump the power to determine whether or not Iran is complying with the deal.
According to AP, the issue is being framed as a way to free Trump from the embarrassment of having to certify the deal every three months.
The worst thing about the entire debate about certifying Iranian compliance is not that it is delusional.
It is that it is irrelevant.
Obama’s nuclear pact is yesterday’s news.
Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran gave the Iranians all the benefits up front. In exchange for a handshake, Iran received a $100 billion in cold hard cash and foreign direct investment. The international arms markets opened to them. The international financial markets opened to them.
Non-certification won’t bring back the money.
More important than the financial advantages Iran has already won, and will not lose if the US decertifies, is the fact that due to the deal, Iran has had two years to freely advance its nuclear program without meaningful inspections and without sanctions.
And again, while the Iranians have advanced, the US has debated the two-year old deal over and over again as if it matters. This instead of constructing a strategy to block Iran’s entrance into the nuclear club.
This brings us to Iran’s ally North Korea, which thanks to feckless US policy-makers of previous administrations, is already a member of the nuclear club.
During Mattis’s testimony Tuesday he said that despite the fact that he and Trump are threatening to annihilate North Korea and Tillerson is trying to appease North Korea, there is no contradiction in the administration’s policy.
Substantively he is right. Since both of the policies being discussed are imaginary, whether the administration talks about military action or diplomacy, its statements are meaningless.
The fact is that unless the US is willing to see tens of thousands of South Koreans vaporized in a North Korean artillery assault on Seoul in response to a US military strike on Pyongyang, the US has no viable military option for dealing with North Korea. Since the Trump administration has given no indication that it is willing to see that sort of destruction in South Korea to achieve the goal of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula, its threats to annihilate North Korea are not credible.
As for Tillerson’s search for a diplomatic solution, this too is futile. For 24 years, three US administrations reached “historic deal” after “historic deal” with Pyongyang, and Pyongyang breached all of them as it raced to the finishing line of its nuclear weapons program.
Now, with Kim Jung Un testing hydrogen bombs and ICBMs and threatening to nuke Guam, there is no chance that US diplomacy will fare any better than it did in the past.
And so the US is back where it has always been. It has one card to play with North Korea: China.
China is the only actor that can end North Korea’s nuclear brinkmanship without war. But to compel China to act the US requires far more leverage over the Chinese than it has presently mustered or brought to bear.
So the only way for the US to avert war with North Korea is to escalate its competition with China on America’s terms.
Unfortunately, once Trump’s senior strategist Stephen Bannon left the White House in August, no senior administration official has been working on building leverage over China.
Back to Iran. As bad as North Korea is, at least it’s a Chinese client state. If Trump can make China an offer it can’t refuse, he can achieve the US’s strategic goals without a devastating war.
Iran on the other hand is no one’s client. Iran has its own client states.
And just as the Trump administration is unable to extricate itself from Obama’s legacy of delusion and failure with respect to Iran’s nuclear weapons program and North Korea, so it cannot – or will not – shift away from Obama’s delusional policies toward Iran’s client states.
Consider Syria.
In Syria the Trump administration has maintained Obama’s policy of pretending that the most dangerous actor and gravest threat to the US and its interests in Syria is Islamic State.
Although under pressure by Israel, the administration has begun to talk about the threat of Iranian expansionism in Syria, it has no policy for blocking Iran’s empowerment. The same is the case with relation to Russia’s rise as a regional power broker – at the US’s expense – through its deployment in Syria.
As bad as the US’s Syria policy is, its Lebanon policy is even worse.
In Syria the US is simply pretending its enemies do not exist, or if they exist, that they do not threaten the US.
In Lebanon, the US is collaborating with its enemies.
In June Liberman told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, “Today the Lebanese army is a subsidiary unit of Hezbollah and [Lebanese President] Michel Aoun is another [Hezbollah chief Hassan] Nasrallah operative.”
Liberman’s assertions were not a theory. They were grounded in statements made by Aoun himself and by Lebanese military commanders.
But the Americans will not listen to what the Lebanese say or see what they are doing.
Instead, they remain devoted to their fantasy that the Lebanese government is independent and the Lebanese Armed Forces is not a subsidiary of Hezbollah. In support of this lie, this year the US pledged and delivered the bulk of $100 million worth of sophisticated weapons to the Hezbollah- controlled LAF.
In August, the US delivered eight M1-A2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles. According to US Ambassador Elizabeth Richard, they were the first of 32 set for delivery by the end of the year. The US had also delivered M-4 assault rifles, howitzers, grenade launchers, machine guns, mortars, hellfire missiles, night vision devices and thermal sight technology to Hezbollah’s proxy force.
As Middle East analyst Tony Badran noted, the weapons the US supplied to the LAF “have been on Hezbollah’s shopping list consistently for almost a decade.”
And the US is not only arming Hezbollah through its surrogate. It is also fighting alongside Hezbollah through its surrogate.
In August, US special forces fought alongside LAF forces to wrest control of the Lebanese border with Syria from Islamic State-associated Sunni militia.
The battle was a joint LAF-Hezbollah operation – commanded by Hezbollah.
Quoting a source “close to Hezbollah and the LAF,” Al-Monitor’s Nour Samaha wrote, “US Central Command called the Lebanese army chief and asked him to deny any cooperation [with Hezbollah], telling him that while they are aware of cooperation, it has to be denied publicly.”
In other words, it isn’t that the Pentagon isn’t aware it is empowering Hezbollah. It knows what it is doing. It just doesn’t want the American public to know what it is doing.
This brings us finally to the Palestinians. On Tuesday Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin was the first senior minister to publicly criticize the Trump administration’s policy toward Israel and the Palestinians.
Elkin told Yediot Aharonot that despite the friendly tone of administration officials and the fruitful cooperation Israel enjoys with the administration on a host of other issues, on the issue of Jewish property rights in Judea and Samaria, “they are walking on the same path as the Obama administration.”
The same of course can be said of the Trump administration’s policy toward Fatah and the Palestinian Authority. No matter how open PA President Mahmoud Abbas is about his cooperation with Hamas and no matter how many hundreds of millions of dollars he transfers to the bank accounts of terrorists, the Trump administration continues to treat Abbas and the PA as moderates and peace partners. Even worse, the administration is coercing Israel to do the same.
No matter where you look around the globe, in the Middle East, in Asia, in South America and in Europe, you see the same thing. The Trump administration has changed America’s tone in foreign affairs.
But substantively, there has been little change.
Trump may be the anti-Obama. But his policies indicate that all the same, he is the second Obama.