Editor’s Note: Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and author of “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.” Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. Follow him on Twitter @aarondmiller2. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Donald Trump is scheduled to address American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference Monday
Aaron Miller: Trump's views on Israel, Middle East are unconventional for a GOP candidate
There was a time not so long ago when I would argue that all you really need to “do” foreign policy is an atlas, common sense and pretty good judgment. Back then, I was railing against the foreign policy establishment (of which, I suppose, I’m considered a member) who didn’t think Caroline Kennedy could handle the job of U.S. ambassador to Japan.
Most of the frustration among those planning to protest stems from Trump’s positions and statements on Muslims, women and immigrants, as well as the general vulgarity and crudeness of some of his campaign statements, something which many rabbis not surprisingly find fundamentally at odds with Jewish values. (The majority of American Jews vote Democratic and are for their part likely to be concerned by Trump’s temperament, rhetoric and what they see as a general unsuitability for the presidency.)
Another factor, though, is that unlike his Republican rivals, and certainly Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, Trump’s positions on Israel-related issues have seemed too detached and objective, especially for a candidate who has been battling a field of very pro-Israel rivals.
So where exactly does Donald Trump really stand on Israel and the Middle East? And will those in the AIPAC crowd be happy about what they hear?
Certainly, there are some conflicting trend lines. For example, on issues like seizing Iraqi oil for the United States, torture, killing families of terrorists and banning Muslims from the United States, Trump’s initial positions (some of which he’s walked back) are extreme and reckless. Yet at the same time, beneath the bravado, bluster and bombast, Trump’s views on a variety of other issues are actually quite cautious and pragmatic.
With that in mind, it might be best to look at the key regional issues one by one to help set the stage for Monday’s address.
The Iran nuclear deal: Trump presents himself as one of the world’s greatest negotiators, and has repeatedly suggested that he would have negotiated a better deal over Iran’s nuclear program. Indeed, he has described last year’s agreement as “one of the worst deals I have ever seen in dealmaking.”
Yet despite the rhetoric, he has taken a more measured approach to the issue than rivals Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, who promised to tear up the agreement. Indeed, in an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press” last fall, Trump said it would be very hard for the next president to undo the deal. What Trump seems to envision instead is a forced renegotiation, or perhaps killing the deal through a thousand cuts: “I will be so tough on them (Iran),” he opined in the GOP debate in Miami, “and ultimately that deal will be broken unless they behave better than they’ve ever behaved in their lives, which is probably unlikely. That deal will be broken.”
A President Trump could easily call for a review of the accord, work with a compliant Congress to impose new sanctions on Iran’s behavior in the region, and count on the reaction of a hardline Iranian regime to take care of the rest. But the truth is that it’s unlikely that Trump, or any first-term Republican president, would want a major foreign policy crisis in his first 100 days, particularly one in which U.S. options range from bad to worse.
Syria/Iraq: Trump’s views on Syria and Iraq seem in keeping with those who have a broad wariness of getting involved in military adventures in conflicts that don’t appear to pose a direct threat to the United States. In 2000, in his book “The America We Deserve,” Trump wrote that if the United States is going to intervene in a conflict it should be “obvious that most Americans will know where the hot spot is … and will quickly understand why we’re getting involved.”
Of course, Trump’s tough rhetoric on ISIS and his proposal in the Miami debate to send as many as 30,000 U.S. troops to fight the group suggest that he (along with his Republican rivals) might scale up the U.S. military’s role in the region. But he has also blasted the Iraq War, made clear the Iraqis should pay for it (shades of Mexico and the wall) and hammered Jeb Bush for the mess the Iraq War created. “Look at Iraq. Look at the mess we have after spending $2 trillion, thousands of lives, wounded warriors all over the place – we have nothing.”
So, beneath Trump’s reckless rhetoric about seizing Iraqi oil and killing the families of ISIS fighters, his real views might be better reflected by this statement: “We have to get smart. We can’t continue to be the policemen of the world.”
Putin and Syria: Trump has also demonstrated a measured, if not supportive, take on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s role in Syria. “If Putin wants to go and knock the hell out of ISIS, I am all for it, 100%, and I can’t understand how anybody would be against it,” Trump asserted during the fourth Republican debate. And in contrast with both Hillary Clinton and John Kasich, who supported a no-fly zone in response to Russia’s intervention in Syria, Trump cautioned patience, arguing – very much like President Obama – that the United States should “sit back and see what happens.”
What is behind this proposed approach? Well, Trump has warned that whoever succeeds Bashar al-Assad in Syria “may be far worse. Look at Libya,” and the notion that the United States doesn’t know who the rebels really are has been a consistent theme among his views on Syria throughout the campaign.
But there also seems to be something of a mutual admiration society being run by Putin and Trump, and Trump certainly appears to admire Putin’s strength. He has stated that he thinks that he and Putin would get along well, and suggested that if he were president, “I don’t think you’d be having the kind of problems that you’re having right now.”
Israel and the Palestinians: What really separates Trump from all of his rivals is his unusually objective language on Israel, particularly during an election year. He’s clearly made all the obligatory pro-Israel nods, including his constant references to his service as grand marshal of the New York City Salute to Israel Parade in 2004. And during the Miami debate he was quick to note: “I’ve made massive contributions to Israel. … I have tremendous love for Israel. I happen to have a son-in-law and a daughter that are Jewish, OK? And two grandchildren that are Jewish.”
Yet for an aspiring presidential candidate, Trump has flouted most of the usual litmus tests.
For example, he initially dodged a question on the possibility of moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and while he ultimately said he would, should he become president he more likely would take advantage of the waiver in the Jerusalem Embassy Act to avoid doing so, as Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama have done.
Just as importantly, he has repeatedly said he needs to remain neutral in order to hold open the possibility of mediating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Indeed, at last week’s GOP debate, he stated that should he become president, his No. 1 priority would be “protection of Israel, but also seeing if a deal can be made. The toughest deal, the toughest negotiation there probably is of any kind, no matter where you look, no matter how hard you look.”
It’s almost as if the self-styled world’s greatest negotiator, and author of “The Art of the Deal,” is relishing taking on the world’s toughest negotiation.
So, how will the AIPAC audience on Monday react to Donald Trump? Ted Cruz, whose staunch pro-Israel views – especially his promise to tear up the Iran deal on day one in office – will likely get a much better reception. In contrast, those attending the conference may well approach Trump with a mix of curiosity, skepticism and even horror and disbelief.
What is so stunning and hard to accept in this election year is the unprecedented nature of it all. We’ve never seen a candidate like Donald Trump before – a man whose stormy, and at times vulgar, temperament and style seem totally incongruous with a number of more pragmatic and cautious instincts when it comes to foreign policy.
All presidents, Jonathan Alter wrote in Newsweek, are to some extent blind dates. But the scary part this time around is that there’s no way of really knowing what kind of president Donald Trump would actually be. And I suspect that despite his success so far in the Republican primaries, there will be millions more Americans who won’t find out.