The Transnational Trump and the Muddying of the Water’s Edge

Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu (Wikimedia Commons)

by Paul R. Pillar 

The recent episode in which President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu joined forces to stop a visit to Israel by two members of the U.S. Congress has many disturbing aspects. The episode represented, of course, yet another effort to silence any criticism of Israeli policies toward Palestinians and the Occupied Territories, rather than having a full and open discussion of the issues involved. Insofar as anyone’s support for an economic boycott is involved, the nature of a boycott is not to be defined by the most extreme statements of anyone who has ever been associated with it. A boycott used as a non-violent means to oppose current Israeli policies toward the territories and support the human and political rights of Palestinians is not, per the hyperbolic words of David Friedman, Trump’s bankruptcy lawyer and ambassador to Israel, designed to “destroy” the State of Israel. It is not doing that any more than the international boycott that opposed South Africa’s apartheid policies and supported the human and political rights of black South Africans was designed to destroy the Republic of South Africa.

Certainly disturbing is how Trump went out of his way to block legitimate travel by two members of his own country’s national legislature. Most members of Congress routinely travel to Israel on trips that are designed to support the Israeli government’s viewpoint and that, through an ignored tax dodge, are in effect partly subsidized by American taxpayers. Seventy members have been going on such trips just during the current congressional recess. The two members Trump targeted—Representatives Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota—had scheduled a different trip that included discussions relevant to important issues of U.S. foreign policy. (Omar sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.) Trump did not just accede to a foreign government’s blocking of their travel; he actively encouraged the blockage.

The domestic political game Trump has been playing is obvious. Tlaib and Omar are one-half of a quartet of House members—women with diverse skin tones and progressive views—whom Trump is trying to equate with the Democratic Party and to paint as extreme. Although some commentary has described Netanyahu as bending to Trump’s will on this matter—and the episode is indeed contrary to the interests of Israel, broadly and properly defined—the handling of the incident suits Netanyahu’s narrow political objectives just as much as it suits Trump’s narrow political objectives. With the withering of the Israeli left, the competition that matters most to Netanyahu is on the right. He increases his chances of prevailing in the coming Israeli election by being seen to be at least as hardline toward Palestinians and their supporters as any of his right-wing competitors are.

A Larger Concern

As disconcerting as all these details are, Americans ought to take a broader perspective and worry about how the episode illustrates a more fundamental development: the decline in American politics of the concept of the U.S. national interest as the foundation of foreign policy. A dominant principle of U.S. foreign relations used to be that, however sharp and partisan may be disagreements among Americans about specific issues in foreign policy, ultimately those disagreements are subsumed by the interest of the nation as a whole, that this interest constitutes the face that the United States should present to the outside world, and that this interest should take precedence over any interests found in foreign countries or sub-national elements overseas. The concept found expression in the traditional apothegm about politics stopping at the water’s edge.

This principle has never been observed entirely, but over the past quarter century its observance has increasingly broken down in two ways, as angry partisanship in the United States has intensified. First, viewpoints that do not prevail in domestic political competition are seen not just as losing arguments regarding the best way to pursue the national interest but rather as not a worthy part of the nation at all. Second, some foreign interests are seen not just as allies or means that can be used to pursue the U.S. national interest but rather as objects of affection or identity in their own right. These two developments are two sides of the same coin. The more that the concept of a national interest breaks down domestically into a sharp division between one viewpoint to be cherished and an opposing one to be scorned, the more natural a step it is to identify with like-minded elements overseas rather than with one’s own fellow citizens.

Some of the most important roots of this process are to be found in Newt Gingrich’s political revolution in the 1990s, which recast politics as a form of warfare and led political opponents to be regarded more as enemies than as interlocutors in debate. It has been a natural progression from that to the present go-back-where-you-came-from delegitimization of even members of the U.S. Congress, and to taking a foreign government’s side against those members.

These developments are partly disguised by Trump’s rhetoric about “America first” and his declaration that “I’m a nationalist.” Much else that he has said and done suggests that his words were code for “I’m a white nationalist” and indicates that he is not a nationalist in an inclusive sense of nationhood. His whole political approach of energizing and enflaming, rather than expanding, his base reflects how the interests he intends to defend, abroad as well as at home, are best defined in narrower ethnic or racial terms.

His administration provided a couple of reminders of this in the same week as the incident involving the congresswomen’s aborted trip to Israel. First, Trump’s acting immigration chief rewrote Emma Lazarus’s poem on the Statue of Liberty to make it apply only to Europeans. And then it was reported that Trump, who had given the back of his hand to the U.S. island of Puerto Rico, where three million (Hispanic) U.S. citizens reside, wants to buy the island of Greenland. Trump either doesn’t realize that people live in Greenland and thinks a purchase would just be a “large real estate deal,” or, not realizing how much the population of Greenland is ethnically Inuit, thinks of the place as part of the northern Europe that he likes in contrast to the “shithole countries” in more southerly latitudes that he doesn’t like.

The Nationalist International

Trump clearly feels affinity with foreign elites who share with him a xenophobic, ethnically based populism or faux-populism with an authoritarian bent. With Trump, one can never know for sure how much his orientation is personal and emotional rather than political or ideological. Some of his open fondness for dictators may be simple longing for the kind of control over a country’s affairs that they have and he wishes he had. But to the extent there is true political content in this aspect of his foreign relations, he is being just as transnational as a member in good standing of the Socialist International. The bond that unites him and the foreign leaders with whom he identifies could be termed oxymoronically as the Nationalist International, if nationalism in this case is understood to be the narrow, exclusive kind with an unspoken ethnic adjective in front of the word nationalism.

The range of issues on which the breakdown of the previous concept of U.S. national interest appears extends beyond relations with Israel, although that is where affinity with a foreign country’s narrow nationalism and its connection to divisive U.S. politics is most apparent. Friedman, with his personal connection to Israeli settlements in the West Bank, personifies the phenomenon as much as anyone does. Based on his public statements and conduct, he defines his role not as representing his home country’s national interests before the host government—which is the primary duty of any ambassador—but instead as defending the host government’s policies to the people of both his host and home countries.

The breakdown precedes and extends beyond Trump, even though he is more blatant in expressing underlying sentiments than are most other politicians who have been part of the phenomenon. One of the most illustrative pre-Trump episodes was an open letter to Iran in 2015, organized by Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas and signed by most Senate Republicans, that essentially told the Iranians not to put any trust in whatever the U.S. administration was saying or offering in the ongoing negotiations to restrict Iran’s nuclear program. About the same time, the Republican congressional leadership invited, without informing the administration, a foreign leader—Netanyahu—to give an address to Congress in which he denounced the same negotiations in which the United States was then engaged. The Republicans had the twin objectives of denying a foreign policy achievement to Barack Obama and currying favor with domestic political elements that support Netanyahu’s government, making this flagrant undermining of U.S. diplomacy a salient example of the U.S. national interest taking a back seat to domestic political warfare and transnational political affinities.

The Republican-Likud alliance that has become a major part of politics in both the United States and Israel, and underlies a widening divide between Republican and Democratic views of issues involving Israel, flows naturally from ideological affinity rooted in ethnic exclusiveness. Peter Beinart comments that Republicans “conflate love of Israel with love of America because they see Israel as a model for what they want America to be: an ethnic democracy.” Israel “structurally privileges one ethnic and religious group over others. That’s what many Republicans want here.”

Border walls, which have become a big part of Trump’s politics, figure into the same affinity. Trump has lauded Israel’s security barrier, which slices through the West Bank and skirts the home village of the grandmother whom Representative Tlaib will not be visiting, as a model for the United States. Netanyahu has basked in the comparison and added that a further security barrier that Israel has built near the Egyptian border has been a “great success” that has “stopped all illegal immigration.”

The handling of the proposed visit by Representatives Tlaib and Omar has received criticism from many different quarters for many different reasons. What all Americans ought to ponder is how this incident demonstrates how far U.S. politics have come from truly putting America first and from upholding its interests before the rest of the world in a strong, united, and effective way.

Paul Pillar

Paul R. Pillar is Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and an Associate Fellow of the Geneva Center for Security Policy. He retired in 2005 from a 28-year career in the U.S. intelligence community. His senior positions included National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, Deputy Chief of the DCI Counterterrorist Center, and Executive Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence. He is a Vietnam War veteran and a retired officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. Dr. Pillar's degrees are from Dartmouth College, Oxford University, and Princeton University. His books include Negotiating Peace (1983), Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy (2001), Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy (2011), and Why America Misunderstands the World (2016).



  1. In their book, “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy”, Walt and Mearsheimer discuss how US national interests have taken a back seat. George Ball wrote about the same years earlier in his “The Passionate Attachment”. Krauthammer claimed that with the end of the Cold War the world would experience a “unipolar” moment led by the US and attended by Western powers. Two weeks ago the LA Times reported that the only country backing US plans to send a force against Iran in the Persian Gulf was Micronesia. How’s that for a unipolar moment?

  2. I admire Mr. Pillars analytical skills and am an avid reader of his essays. The only issue I have is that sometimes he is a tat soft on Trump. For example, he says that he is not sure that DJT’s fondness for authoritarians is emotional or political. This smacks of some naivete. Trump is intentionally promotes authoritarianism, because he wants to rule America until 2015 and beyond. He incites hate, he has no respect for democracy because democracy is an obstacle to his rule. Be prepared for Trump to reject the outcome of 2020 elections if he does not get reelected. Please take the danger of white nationalism which is the harbinger of American fascism seriously. It is mind boggling that > 40% of population supports him. You see the precursors of storm troopers in the “send her back” crowd.

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