Recognizing Jerusalem: blunder, bombast or both?

By Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist  |  Dec. 11, 2017 at 7:50 AM
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President Donald Trump confounded his critics, bolstered his base and reportedly defied his secretaries of state and defense last week in recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital. Why the president decided to make this announcement and at that time makes little sense. Clearly, a campaign promise was honored but to no obvious advantage.

Other possible reasons for the president's declaration are not reassuring either. Because of the president's huge ego and his penchant for disruption, conceivably he could have just arbitrarily decided to reverse his predecessors' policy of not recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital. He may have thought that as Israel's government has long been in Jerusalem, recognition reflected reality --hence, no big deal. However, these reasons are trivial. If Trump is as clever as his supporters believe, other forces must be at work.

Former ambassador to Israel (and to many other places as well) Tom Pickering observed that if the president were truly a great dealmaker, he certainly would have gained something in return for this unilateral action. So far, he has not. More likely, Pickering argued, this proclamation was misdirection aimed at diverting attention from special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation that led to a guilty plea from former national security adviser Michael Flynn and a subpoena issued to Deutsche Bank, which, according to the Wall Street Journal, provided about $2.5 billion in loans to Trump and his real estate business, possibly with Russian money.

A less likely yet plausible scenario for recognizing Jerusalem also reflects the president's embrace of the "art of the deal." After being seduced by his visit to Saudi Arabia, he may have believed that King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman were on board for a negotiation that would lead to peace in the Middle East. Clearly, in this line of thinking, Jerusalem was the price for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's agreement to negotiate with the Saudis.

With two sides now "locked in," son-in-law Jared Kushner could close the deal. Peace would be at hand. And Trump would score an unprecedented political and diplomatic victory. That the Palestinians were missing from this arrangement would be fixed at a later date. Unfortunately, the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict is almost as far removed from a real estate deal as Uranus is from Earth.

Earlier this year, the president determined he could no longer certify the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that prevents Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. However, he sloughed off the decision of how to exit the agreement to Congress. Because Congress is overloaded with the tax reform bill, funding the government, dealing with healthcare and a multitude of other pressing issues, the JCPOA is on a very back burner. Similarly, while Trump has declared that the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv will be moved to Jerusalem, Congress is left to make that decision as to when and how that will take place. In other words, perhaps as concessions to his advisers who are more knowledgeable and rely less on instinct or ego to make policy decisions, the president can claim credit for taking bold steps that are rhetorical flourishes rather than dramatic policy shifts.

Such a possibility reeks of cynicism. Yet, American politics are surely in this state. Al Franken was no master of the Senate. As he pointed out, allegations of his groping -- which probably reflected boorish behavior rather than actual sexual assault on his part that forced his retirement -- were insignificant compared to the charges levied against Trump and Alabama senatorial candidate Roy Moore. Meanwhile, what is left of American credibility and reputation abroad is rapidly diminishing. Here Russia is helping.

Vladimir Putin is determined to disrupt and contain America, not only because he now no longer can trust Washington to act responsibly. Putin fears that American military interventions beginning in Iraq in 2003 to promising NATO membership to Georgia and Ukraine in 2008 to overthrowing Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, precipitating the refugee crisis in Europe is perhaps the greatest threat to international stability. America in his view has become a danger not merely to Russia as during the Cold War but to the international community at large.

Recognizing Jerusalem and decertifying the JCPOA play directly into Putin's assessment. And while far from justifying Putin's conclusions, he has a point.

Harlan Ullman has served on the Senior Advisory Group for Supreme Allied Commander Europe (2004-16) and is senior adviser at Washington D.C.'s Atlantic Council, chairman of two private companies and principal author of the doctrine of shock and awe. A former naval person, he commanded a destroyer in the Persian Gulf and led over 150 missions and operations in Vietnam as a Swift Boat skipper. His newest book, "Anatomy of Failure: Why America Has Lost Every War It Starts," is just out. Follow him on Twitter@harlankullman.

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