Opinion | International

Israel-UAE breakthrough proves Trump's critics wrong — again

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For nearly four years, Washington foreign policy experts and Obama administration alumni warned that the Trump administration was jeopardizing any prospects for Middle East peace. By withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, we were told, the U.S. would alienate itself from its allies. By moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, it would inflame the anger of millions of Arab Muslims. By recognizing Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights, it would estrange the Arab states. By maintaining close relations with the Israeli government, it would imperil the lives of Palestinians.

With such a grim record of prediction, Thursday's historic announcement that the U.S. brokered a normalization agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates - the first Gulf Arab state to announce formal relations with the Jewish State - has the D.C. establishment with its tail between its legs once again. Especially now that so many have accepted prominent roles with the Biden campaign, they might want to consider where they went wrong.

I'd recommend starting with why even the prospect of a Biden administration has been enough to push Israel and many of its Arab neighbors closer together. During the Obama-Biden years, the U.S. prioritized bringing Iran "in from the cold" over regional stability and violence reduction. It also considered Western Europe a higher authority on revolutionary changes to the Middle East balance of power than the U.S. allies who actually live there. The threat of a return to those ways of thinking, and the desire to maximize the advantages of the current administration, helped ink the deal that many saw as impossible.

Rather than instigate a new round of doomsday predictions and too-cute-by-half analyses of how Thursday's news is somehow "bad" for anyone but the Iranian mullahs, the experts and campaign officials who got this issue so wrong might want to revisit some other previous assumptions.

Sanctions on Iran were supposed to escalate tensions in the Persian Gulf. Expelling Iran from global oil markets was supposed to destabilize the region. The assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani was supposed to trigger World War III. Bringing troops home from Iraq and Syria was supposed to be a capitulation to Russia. Altering the U.S. attitude toward greater Turkish action in the region was supposed to be a needless provocation to Russia. (Either way, it's always about Russia.) And, most importantly of course, it was an outrage to Western Europe.

Critics who have lamented the Trump administration's supposed abandonment of allies somehow missed the years of effort it put into building consensus where it counts. Just because an agreement is local, doesn't receive the blessing of the European Union, and is negotiated outside the walls of the United Nations, does not make it any less "multilateral." The Biden-world understanding of agreements such as these is that they must take place in the context of the G-20, and must be led by a consensus which, first and foremost, serves the interests and self-image of the "P5+1" or "E3+3." The consent of the regional stakeholders who actually have to live with the consequences of these agreements is seen as largely irrelevant.

As the Washington establishment and their Potemkin candidate panic about a historic diplomatic achievement that serves U.S. interests, keep an eye on next steps. One possible issue on the horizon is Lebanon. That long-suffering country, Israel's northern neighbor, is undergoing another heartbreaking period of instability and tragedy, largely imposed by the violent predations of the terrorist organization Hezbollah. For the past three and a half years, the Trump administration has relentlessly squeezed the Iranian terror proxy, chasing it out of international finance, clamping down on its transnational money-laundering schemes, and cooperating with allies such as Germany to eliminate its fundraising and recruiting activities on European soil.

The Trump administration now should consider conditioning current levels of aid to Lebanon (America is its largest foreign-aid donor) on the weakening of Hezbollah's influence, and a normalization path between Beirut and Jerusalem. The White House also should lean heavily on France for cooperation.

But here's the difference between the Trump administration and November's alternative: Just as with all other regional issues, President Trump begins with a policy that he believes serves the U.S. national interest, then cooperates with the U.S. allies who have the most skin in the game. Joe Biden and his army of "experts" surely will spend this fall arguing the opposite: That the U.S. must begin by being ashamed of its own interests, then reach out to like-minded progressives who will agree to impose their preferences on ordinary people elsewhere in the world. 

President Trump has now proven that not starting new wars, bringing U.S. troops home, and signing peace deals is only possible when an outsider ignores the Washington foreign policy establishment. 

Richard Grenell is a senior fellow of Carnegie Mellon University's Institute for Politics and Strategy. He served more than 10 years in the U.S. Department of State, including as U.S. ambassador to Germany, 2018-2020, and as a spokesman at the United Nations, and served briefly as acting director of national intelligence (DNI).

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