After your preferred candidate loses an election, it’s always an interesting thought experiment to ponder “what if?” After President Joe Biden’s first trip to the Middle East this month, the mainstream media are taking stock and grading the president’s performance. But few are asking: How would the trip have been different had we had former President Trump taking it instead of President Biden?
Despite the American media’s affection for Biden, and their willingness to provide political cover for his many gaffes, missteps and poor performance, his most recent trip to the Middle East garnered a great deal of negative publicity. The Washington Post asked “Was Biden’s Middle East trip worth it?” and opened its coverage with the line: “The optics weren’t ideal.” Writing for Foreign Policy, Aaron David Miller asked “What did Biden achieve on his Middle East trip?” Those are not questions the Biden administration wants the media to be asking after such a highly-publicized diplomatic voyage.
But that’s not to say that Trump would have received anything resembling better press. The American media was famously willing to bend and twist their coverage to make the then-president look as bad as humanly possible (remember the infamous koi pond footage of Trump dumping a full container of fish food into a pond alongside Japaneses Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that was universally mocked and derided? Quietly, a few days later, it was revealed that Abe did so first, and Trump merely followed his host’s lead).
But how would Trump have acted differently on a trip of this nature? I asked two former high-ranking members of the Trump administration who would have been key players both behind the scenes and with the media for their take on what our Middle East policy and relations would look like in an alternate reality in which Trump had won a second term.
Former State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus, now a regular on Fox News, told me, “President Trump and Mike Pompeo’s philosophy on the Middle East was simple: reward friends and allies, punish enemies.” She went on, “We ended up with the Abraham Accords and peace in the Middle East because we united our friends in the region against our mutual common enemy. President Biden and his naive negotiating team waltzed into talks with Iran as if the last four years never happened. They inflamed and disrespected our friends by not even having them at the negotiating table. How gross and imperialistic to have a bunch of white Western men negotiating the future of the Middle East without the Arabs or Israelis at the table. Haven’t we learned over the past 100 years that this approach to the Middle East doesn’t work?”
Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s former business lawyer who was then appointed as an assistant to the president and special representative for International Negotiations, recent book “In the Path of Abraham: How Donald Trump Made Peace in the Middle East — and How to Stop Joe Biden from Unmaking It,” sounded a similar tone about how differently the Trump administration handled the Middle East philosophically. I asked Greenblatt to grade Biden’s trip and Greenblatt told me, “Biden thinks diplomacy is the answer to Iran and that re-entering into the Iran deal is the right approach. Neither are correct. And (Israeli Prime Minister Yair) Lapid made clear he doesn’t think diplomacy will work when it comes to the Iranian regime.” Shifting to Biden’s trip to Israel, Greenblatt explained, “On the Palestinian issue, Biden is falling into the traps of the past. He’s giving them lots of US taxpayer money for zero benefit to the U.S. He’s giving them symbolic wins, such as refusing to be accompanied by Israeli officials when he visited the East Jerusalem hospital. That signals he does not think that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, or that Jerusalem can be divided. Either of those violate the Jerusalem Recognition Act in spirit, if not in actuality.”
In his book, Greenblatt was clear about how differently Trump handled negotiations with Palestinians, a tone that sounds familiar to any parent (Greenblatt himself is a father of six), “Issuing unrealistic demands is not negotiating; it is a temper tantrum, and it shouldn’t be tolerated, much less encouraged.”
When he first was appointed as the Special Representative for International Negotiations, Greenblatt explained, “In several stories, my lack of formal training or background in foreign policy was always front and center.” Greenblatt didn’t disagree with that assessment of his background, saying, “I couldn’t honestly claim the slightest experience as a diplomat. But then I began to think that might not necessarily be a bad thing. … Over the past 70 years, literally scores of professional diplomats and polished politicians in our country, as well as many others, had tried to bring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a satisfactory conclusion, and they had nothing to show for it. … The ‘experts’ could question my lack of qualifications all they wanted, but despite their superior expertise, were they any closer to achieving peace?”
The Biden administration’s handling of his trip signaled that America was shifting away from the philosophy and strategy successfully employed by the Trump administration, whose foreign policy achievements sent shockwaves through the region, changing it for the better, hopefully forever. The Biden administration has run from everything the Trump administration has done, right and wrong, and as we’ve seen at the conclusion of the President’s trip, has done so to its detriment.
In his book Greenblatt explained, “The Biden administration, and future ones, would be wise to follow our lead” when it comes to how Middle East relationships and negotiations were handled by the Trump White House.
He’s not wrong.