And what is Trump’s team doing in Israel? First it moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem — giving the right-wing Israeli government of Bibi Netanyahu a long-coveted prize — and asked for nothing in return.
Trump could have told Bibi that he would move the embassy but only in return for Israel halting all settlement-building beyond the West Bank blocks in the densely populated Arab areas that would likely be put under Palestinian control in any peace deal. That might have actually advanced the peace process. Instead, the U.S. gave up one of its most valuable diplomatic assets free. How foolish was that?
Now Trump’s team is punishing the Palestinians for not negotiating with Netanyahu — who has not put any deal on the table — by cutting off aid to the Palestinian Authority — aid that went to projects like water and sewage treatment — and contributions to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, a major employer in the West Bank and Gaza and the primary source of secular — i.e. non-Islamist — education for Palestinians.
Trump thinks he can just keep bludgeoning the Palestinians and never ask Israel to do anything hard and prevent things from getting any worse. Well, yes, they can get worse. The Palestinian Authority can collapse — and as feckless and corrupt as it may be, if it goes, it will be hard to rebuild; Israel would have to provide all the governance in the West Bank at a huge cost.
And then there’s Saudi Arabia. I have little doubt that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was the only one in his family who would have initiated the vital social, religious and economic reforms that he’s dared to do all at once — and that he is also the only one in that family who’d have undertaken the bullying foreign policy initiatives, domestic power plays and excessive personal buying sprees he’s dared to do all at once. These are two halves of the same M.B.S. package, and, as I’ve argued, our job is to help curb his bad impulses and nurture his good ones. But Trump — who still doesn’t even have an ambassador in Saudi Arabia — is AWOL.
To repeat: Democracy is not on the agenda in Saudi Arabia, but social, economic and religious reform is. M.B.S.’s government for the first time just appointed women to several key municipality leadership jobs. Considering the hugely damaging role that Saudi Arabia played in the Arab Muslim world, when, post-1979, it began to aggressively spread its puritanical form of Islam — which helped to seed 9/11 — the idea that the kingdom has a leader today who might begin to shift Sunni Islam onto a more open and moderate path, one that would isolate radical Islamists and strengthen moderates everywhere, is a huge U.S. interest to nurture.
Lately, though, M.B.S. has undertaken a series of ill-considered steps that are hurting him, Saudi Arabia and us. M.B.S. has a few very extreme advisers who keep telling him to follow the “China model” — China asserted itself in the South China Sea, the world complained, China responded to get lost, and eventually the world backed down. So when Canada mildly criticized a Saudi Arabian human rights abuse, M.B.S. went nuclear on Canada and virtually broke off relations. It was an absurd overreaction. Saudi Arabia is not China. It needs friends. It needs to be more Dubai than Shanghai — more soft power, less bullying.