A Post-Trump Challenge: Getting Foreign Leaders’ Hands Off U.S. Politics

Source: Politico | October 29, 2020 | Thanassis Cambanis and Michael Wahid Hanna

Donald Trump hasn’t just personalized foreign policy—he’s let rivals get used to playing politics in the U.S. If Biden wins, he’ll need to put the genie back in the bottle.

If Joe Biden wins the presidency, his foreign policy to-do list is going to be vast: reengage with the global community on China and the pandemic, restart nuclear talks and reassure NATO, to say nothing of refocusing America’s sprawling military commitments.

But there’s one issue that hasn’t been on the radar—almost more an issue of style than substance, but critical nonetheless to restoring some lost stature to American diplomacy.

Like a house guest who starts to act like a rent-paying roommate, Washington’s partners overseas, especially in the Middle East, have grown far too comfortable taking inappropriate partisan stands in American politics.

The old adage holds that American domestic politics supposedly stop at the water’s edge, meaning that partisan disputes are waged in Washington, but not abroad. American administrations of all stripes have generally worked to remind foreign governments—friends as well as enemies—not to try to play America’s parties and personalities against each other. International relations are supposed to be serious business conducted between national governments, and not personal deals forged by individuals in power.

While the actual practice of foreign policy has often fallen short of that mythologized past, both parties have acknowledged the importance of the norm even when failing to respect it.

Middle Eastern leaders had begun eroding those norms before the election of President Donald Trump. Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu decisively sundered the institutional basis of the U.S.-Israel relationship, visiting Congress at the invitation of Republicans in an explicit affront to President Barack Obama. Israel, along with oil monarchies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, publicly undermined the Iran nuclear deal, encouraging Americans to oppose the deal on party lines.

Since Trump’s election, however, overt partisanship by foreign powers has risen to new levels. Leaders in Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates openly worry about the setbacks they might face if they lose the special status they’ve been granted by Trump. Saudi’s de facto leader has steered Saudi investments into swing states to encourage votes for Trump. Israel and the United Arab Emirates have lobbied hard—and successfully—to make Iran policy a partisan domestic issue in the U.S., rather than a bipartisan matter of national security.

Disturbingly, foreign leaders have started to treat their partnerships with the United States as a personal relationship with the man at the top and his family—no surprise for a batch of unabashedly authoritarian leaders.

In the short term, this corrosive approach has paid off richly for friendly authoritarians. Personal flattery to Trump and a transactional, partisan approach to U.S. politics has given American partners in the Middle East a green light to undertake previously inconceivable actions. Dictators like Egypt’s Abdul Fattah al-Sisi have gotten a free pass while imposing unprecedented violent repression on their citizens. When Sisi was reelected in 2018 in a fundamentally flawed and unfair process that saw him capture 97 percent of the vote, Trump didn’t rap his knuckles for subverting democracy; instead he heartily congratulated Sisi on the win.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE have continued to buy big on the U.S. weapons market, embracing Trump and spending freely at his family businesses, and have delivered a conveniently timed thaw in relations with Israel. In exchange, Trump has continued to support the two oil powers’ destructive war in Yemen (compounding Obama’s initial mistake of greenlighting the Saudi-led campaign—a bad policy decision, but not the product of a handshake deal between strongmen). He has shielded Saudi’s de facto leader from any consequence for targeting dissidents, including the murder of journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi—even bragging to Bob Woodward that he had “saved his ass,” and explaining further that he “was able to get Congress to leave him alone” and “get them to stop.”

That same personalized approach to diplomacy has been a hallmark of Jared Kushner’s dealings in the Middle East, with U.S. officials having expressed concern about his private text messages with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, functioning with no oversight or input from the formal institutional channels of diplomatic engagement.


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