I’m contemplating writing a book on the first year of President Donald Trump’s foreign policy, and I already know the name: “The Art of the Giveaway.”
In nearly 30 years of covering United States foreign policy, I’ve never seen a president give up so much to so many for so little, starting with China and Israel. In both the Middle Kingdom and in the Land of Israel, Christmas came early this year. The Chinese and the Jews are both whispering to their kids: “There really is a Santa Claus.”
And his name is Donald Trump.
Who can blame them? Let’s start with Israel, every Israeli government since its founding has craved U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as its capital. And every U.S. government has refrained from doing that, arguing that such a recognition should come only in the wake of an agreed final status peace accord between Israelis and Palestinians — until now.
On Wednesday, Trump just gave it away — for free. Such a deal! Why in the world would you just give this away for free and not even use it as a lever to advance the prospect of an Israeli-Palestinian deal?
Trump could have said two things to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. First, he could have said: “Bibi, you keep asking me to declare Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. OK, I will do that. But I want a deal. Here’s what I want from you in return: You will declare an end to all Israeli settlement building in the West Bank, outside of the existing settlement bloc that everyone expects to be part of Israel in any two-state solution.”
Such a trade-off is needed. It would produce a real advance for United States interests and for the peace process. As Dennis Ross, the veteran American Middle East peace negotiator and author of “Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.-Israeli Relationship From Truman to Obama,” explained: “When you stop building outside the settlement blocs, you preserve, at a maximum, the possibility of a two-state outcome and, at a minimum, the ability for Israelis to separate from Palestinians. Keep up the building in densely populated Palestinian areas and separation becomes impossible.”
Trump also could have said, as the former U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk suggested, that he’d decided “to begin the process of moving the embassy to western Jerusalem, but at the same time was declaring his willingness to make a parallel announcement that he would establish an embassy to the state of Palestine in East Jerusalem” — as part of any final status agreement. That would at least have insulated us from looking like we made a one-sided gesture that will only complicate peacemaking and kept the door open to Palestinians.
In either case, Trump could then have boasted to Israelis and Palestinians that he got them each something that Barack Obama never did — something that advanced the peace process and U.S. credibility and did not embarrass our Arab allies. But Trump is a chump. And he is a chump because he is ignorant and thinks the world started the day he was elected, and so he is easily gamed.
Just ask the Chinese. Basically, his first day in office, Trump tore up the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free-trade deal — clearly without having read it or asked China for any trade concession in return. Trump simply threw out the window the single most valuable tool the United States had for shaping the geoeconomic future of the region our way and for pressuring China to open its markets to more U.S. goods.
Trump is now trying to negotiate trade openings with China alone — bilaterally — and getting basically nowhere. And yet he could have been negotiating with China as the head of a 12-nation TPP trading bloc that was based on U.S. values and interests and that controlled 40 percent of the global economy. Think of the leverage we lost.
In a column from Hong Kong in June, a senior Hong Kong official told me: “When Trump did away with TPP, all your allies’ confidence in the U.S. collapsed.” After the U.S. stopped TPP, “everyone is now looking to China,” added Jonathan Koon-shum Choi, chairman of the Chinese General Chamber of Commerce, Hong Kong. “But China is very smart — just keeping its mouth shut.”
Just to remind: TPP was a free-trade agreement that the Obama team forged with Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. It was not only the largest free-trade agreement in history, it was the best ever for U.S. workers, closing loopholes NAFTA had left open. Some 80 percent of the goods from our 11 TPP partners were coming into the United States duty-free already, while our goods and services were still being hit with thousands of tariffs in their countries — which TPP eliminated.
As I also noted last June, the other people we disappointed by scrapping TPP, explained James McGregor, author of “One Billion Customers: Lessons From the Front Lines of Doing Business in China,” were China’s economic reformers: They were hoping that the emergence of TPP “would force China to reform its trade practices more along American lines and to open its markets. ... We failed the reformers in China.”
Trump is susceptible to such giveaways, not only because he is ignorant, but because he does not see himself as the president of the United States. He sees himself as the president of his base. And because that’s the only support he has left, he feels the need to keep feeding his base by fulfilling crude, ill-conceived promises he threw out to them during the campaign. Today, again, he put another one of those promises ahead of United States’ national interest.
Thomas Friedman, a New York Times columnist, was awarded two Pulitzer Prizes for international reporting in Beirut and Israel and one for commentary.