Could Trump’s impulsiveness create opportunities in the Middle East?

For political reasons, Trump might not make a shift in policy before the November mid-term elections.
Sunday 18/03/2018
A passenger on a subway train in Seoul on March 10 reads a newspaper with a headline of a planned summit meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump. 		(AP)
Personal initiatives. A passenger on a subway train in Seoul on March 10 reads a newspaper with a headline of a planned summit meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump. (AP)

BOSTON - Not surprisingly, US President Donald Trump is acting as president just as he did as business executive: making quick decisions based on his instincts without much input from those around him.

This was quite evident recently when, after envoys from South Korea presented Trump with an invitation from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un for a face-to-face meeting, Trump immediately decided to accept. Trump said a few days later that he, alone, had made the decision.

The Washington Post reported that US Defence Secretary James Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster were stunned that Trump had accepted the offer so quickly without thinking through the ramifications. Usually, there would have been meetings of top national security and foreign policy aides to discuss the offer, after which they would present the president with the pros and cons of accepting it.

Perhaps this is not all that surprising given Trump’s personality and his belief that he is so intelligent that he does not need the advice of others. During the 2016 campaign, Trump declared at one point that he “knows more than the generals” about security issues. When asked last November why so many top US State Department posts remained empty, Trump said: “Let me tell you, the one that matters is me. I’m the only one that matters, because when it comes down to it, that’s what the policy is going to be.”

This type of thinking was partially responsible for the sacking of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Just a week previously, Trump stated that he liked to have people argue in front of him and present different points of view but he clearly was uncomfortable that he and Tillerson had different views on the Iran nuclear deal and other issues.

Trump’s decision to nominate CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace Tillerson as secretary of state was also instinctive. He said he and Pompeo have a “very similar thought process” on issues, in contrast to his differences with Tillerson.

Tillerson wanted to keep the Iran nuclear deal intact while working with the Europeans on issues that would address other concerns such as Iran’s missile programme and its destabilising activities in some Arab countries. This approach was not to Trump’s liking because he wants either fundamental changes to the nuclear deal or to scrap it altogether.

Pompeo, in contrast to Tillerson, was very critical of the Iran nuclear deal as a member of Congress, calling it a “disaster.” He said in late 2016 that he was looking forward to Trump “rolling it back.” Since he and Trump are, the president said, “on the same wavelength,” this suggests that Pompeo’s hawkish views on Iran have not changed.

The danger is that Pompeo may encourage Trump’s impulses on Iran, in which case the region could be in store for a new war, as Tehran could respond to Washington’s scrapping of the deal by restarting its nuclear programme. If that occurs, Tehran’s enemies in the region might decide that attacking Iran is the best option.

On the other hand, Trump’s impulsivity could lead him to take a fresh look at the Israeli-Palestinian situation. Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and his lawyer Jason Greenblatt, who were designated by the president to spearhead the peace process, have little to show for their efforts after 14 months. Indeed, the prospects for peace may be worse now than before Trump became president.

Trump is to blame for much of the impasse, especially because of his decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv, leading the Palestinians to charge that the United States was no longer an honest broker.

However, Trump might just take another look at the situation and say to himself that Kushner and Greenblatt need to be replaced.

Although it is not in Trump’s nature to admit he made a mistake on Jerusalem, he could use his friendship with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to say: “You owe me something now.” Pompeo, who reportedly was a good manager at the CIA, might then rely on experts on the Israeli-Palestinian situation within the State Department to chart a more even-handed policy and encourage Trump to do the same.

For political reasons, Trump might not make such a shift in policy before the November mid-term elections but it is possible he could take a fresh approach afterwards. Although it is a long shot, and he would certainly have to shift gears, it is not inconceivable that Trump may try a different approach to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking to achieve “the ultimate deal.”