The GOP’s savviest foreign policy expert in the Senate, Tennessee’s Bob Corker, announced he won’t run for re-election in 2018.
Corker knew he’d be primaried by pro-Donald Trump populists who have declared war on mainstream Republicans. But this sober senator had probably tired of chairing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the Trump era. Why hold hearings on weighty issues when they'll be ignored by a president who makes foreign policy by Twitter?
Corker’s decision is one more reminder of Trump’s dangerous foreign policy confusion. Apart from North Korea, there’s nowhere that confusion is more risky than in Trump’s contradictory policies toward the Middle East.
Any president would have had a tough time with the Mideast mess Trump inherited. On the surface, Trump would seem to have returned to a traditional Republican approach: unremitting support for Sunni Arab allies and Israel, while working to curb Iranian mischief. Add to that “bomb the hell” out of the Islamic State and make the deal of the century on Israel-Palestine.
But Trump’s lack of discipline have turned his Mideast policy into hash.
On the Sunni Arab alliance, the president was so entranced by the lavish reception he received from the Saudi royal family that he publicly endorsed its side in a quarrel with Qatar. Thus, Trump helped split the Sunni alliance and distracted its members from a coherent stance toward Iran.
On the fight vs. the Islamic State, yes, the president intensified the battle underway under Obama. But stabilizing Iraq and Syria requires skilled American diplomacy with full presidential backing, or Islamic State 2.0 will emerge.
In Iraq, Washington has a key role to play in mediating between factions, including Kurds and an angry Baghdad government after the Kurds’ independence referendum. Iraqi Sunnis freed from the Islamic State thrall want U.S. mediation help with the Shiite-led government. A failure to provide it will open the door to a new jihadi explosion. Trump’s military-only focus and indifference to broad long-term strategy offer little hope that proactive diplomacy will be on offer.
The United States needs to be talking seriously to Russia about how to stabilize post-Islamic State Syria lest it become another subsidiary of Iran. But Trump has made U.S. dialogue with Moscow impossible by his stubborn refusal to criticize Vladimir Putin. This makes even necessary dialogue with the Russians suspect.
Trump seems to view his foreign policy as a solo operation, tweeting as he sees fit. Moreover, he appears indifferent to the fact that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is gutting the State Department.
Trump foreign policy is a family operation. He appointed his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to bring peace to Israel and the Palestinians. The State Department and National Security Council are out of the picture. Can you imagine the reaction if a President Hillary Clinton had appointed her son-in-law, Marc Mezvinsky, to make Mideast peace?
Most unnerving, the president’s strategic blindness threatens to put the Iranian ayatollahs back on a short-term path to a bomb. Despite opposition from his top security advisers, Trump is reportedly about to refuse to certify by Oct. 15 that Iran is in compliance with the deal that curtails its nuclear program.
America’s military chiefs and Tillerson say Iran is in compliance. The five other participants in the deal, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China, oppose Trump’s stance and would refuse to lift their sanctions.
Corker is an Iran hawk, but says Trump shouldn’t tear up the deal. If he does, Washington would be the outlier and Iran could restart its nuclear program.
Trump is all alone on this one, except for his base. But there can be no sane Mideast policy with a president who envisions it in terms of domestic politics and thinks he has all the answers. No wonder Corker is retiring.
Trudy Rubin, a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.