Douglas J. Feith, senior fellow and director of the Center for National Security Strategies at the Hudson Institute, served as undersecretary of defense for policy from 2001 to 2005. Mr. Feith briefed the Middle East Forum in a conference call on December 20, 2016.
Summary account by Marilyn Stern, Middle East Forum Communications Coordinator.
President-elect Trump’s attitude to America’s traditional friends and allies will differ drastically from Barack Obama’s courting of America’s enemies at its allies’ expense.
While Obama believed that the key to Israeli-Palestinian peace was to distance the U.S. from its Israeli ally while forging a strategic partnership with Tehran, Trump is a harsh critic of the Iran nuclear deal and his rhetoric on Israel, as well as the appointment of David Friedman as ambassador to Jerusalem, indicate a strong and friendly approach that is less likely to obsess with the settlements issue as Obama did. Yet Trump’s comparison of an Arab-Israeli peace to a challenging business deal fails to comprehend the ideological nature of the Palestinian rejection of Israel.
Trump’s Russia policy is difficult to fathom. His pro-Putin comments notwithstanding, it is unrealistic to expect close U.S.-Russian cooperation given the two states’ opposed interests. Moscow is ultimately seeking to recreate the Russian empire, as starkly illustrated by its aggressive moves against Georgia and Ukraine, and Putin’s possible move against the Baltic states. His intention to destroy NATO is detrimental to the U.S. and destabilizing for Europe. Moscow is similarly interested in keeping the Middle East in turmoil as greater instability there puts upward pressure on world energy prices on which the entire Russian economy hinges; hence the sale of S-300 antiaircraft missiles to Iran.
A policy of disengagement from the Middle East, while desirable in principle, is hardly feasible since the region’s endemic problems will continue to haunt the U.S. in the form of refugees, terrorism, cyber-attacks, weapons of mass destruction, and political instability that affects world oil prices.
As for President-elect Trump’s key foreign policy and defense appointments:
· Michael Flynn, the designated national security advisor, takes a strong position against Islamism. Yet his failure to distinguish between Islamism and Islam undercuts Washington’s ability to forge an alliance with anti-Islamist Muslims.
· Rex Tillerson, the designated secretary of state, has little experience in government, so his pursuing a conservative foreign policy contrary to the advice of the skilled and generally liberal foreign service will be very difficult. The assistance of an experienced deputy, like John Bolton, would greatly help.
· James Mattis, the designated secretary of defense, is a military commander of distinction. Yet waiving the requirement that officers forego political appointments for seven years after their retirement threatens to undermine the professionalism of the non-political U.S. military.