How the Trump administration banished the ghosts blocking the path to peace

The Washington Examiner:

Peace, in other words, is precisely the problem, according to the dominant left-of-center narrative on foreign affairs, because it “complicates” America’s ability to jettison its regional alliances in favor of empowering a rogue terrorist state on the basis of the sunk-cost fallacy: Democratic foreign policy hands have already invested so much in an Iran-centered Gulf and Mediterranean order that it has concretized into partisan dogma.

In truth, that’s only half of it. The rest of the investment is in ridiculing the idea that President Art of the Deal actually knows how to negotiate. But the fact is that while Trump and his team’s approach to negotiations are admittedly a wild mismatch for certain types of strategic diplomacy, they are a surprisingly good fit for others.

A car explodes, bullets riddle their target. It’s unclear which happens first, but the end result is the death of the godfather of Iran’s nuclear weapons program in a convoy east of Tehran in late November. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a senior officer in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, was a wanted man. So was Abu Muhammad al Masri, al Qaeda’s No. 2.

Two weeks before Fakhrizadeh’s death, Masri’s rumored killing in Tehran in August, on the anniversary of deadly U.S. Embassy attacks in Africa that he masterminded, was confirmed. A consensus has formed around Israeli involvement in both events, and American involvement at least in Masri’s death. The Trump administration earlier this year also ordered the successful strike against famed Revolutionary Guard commander and floor leader of Iran’s regional war-making Gen. Qassem Suleimani.

These events punctuated the Trump administration’s successful campaign to remake global hot spots and build alliances, culminating in once-unthinkable peace agreements. Just days before Fakhrizadeh’s killing, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were in northern Saudi Arabia for a historic meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. That meeting followed the Abraham Accords, peace-and-normalization deals President Trump brokered between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, two Sunni Gulf kingdoms whose very public accommodation with Jerusalem could not have come without Riyadh’s approval.

The administration negotiated a similar deal between Serbia and Kosovo, achieving a tensions-defusing trade deal after the European Union had failed for a decade to bring the two sides to common ground. And a breakthrough in Latin America showed a degree of patience and behind-the-scenes organization that had the United States enabling a unity of voice and purpose among the Organization of American States that will surely outlast the administration.

That was a recurring theme during the four-year run of nontraditional diplomacy: Critics constantly warned of impending war, but it was the peace agreements that materialized.

If the primary purpose of the killing of Mr. Fakhrizadeh was to make it harder to restart the Iran nuclear agreement, then this assassination does not make America, Israel or the world safer,” tweeted Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee who is no stranger to such fits of illogic. The world is unquestionably safer with fewer nuclear terrorists and more reconciliation between old foes. Recommended For You

“The killing could complicate Biden’s handling of the Iran nuclear deal,” suggested the New York Times. The “sense of humiliation and apprehension in Tehran may complicate Biden’s efforts to calm tensions,” according to the Washington Post. Fakhrizadeh’s death “will also complicate any effort by U.S. President-elect Joe Biden to revive the detente of Barack Obama’s presidency,” said Reuters. The BBC opined it could “complicate an already challenging course for a new US team to re-engage with the Islamic Republic.”

Peace, in other words, is precisely the problem, according to the dominant left-of-center narrative on foreign affairs, because it “complicates” America’s ability to jettison its regional alliances in favor of empowering a rogue terrorist state on the basis of the sunk-cost fallacy: Democratic foreign policy hands have already invested so much in an Iran-centered Gulf and Mediterranean order that it has concretized into partisan dogma.

In truth, that’s only half of it. The rest of the investment is in ridiculing the idea that President Art of the Deal actually knows how to negotiate. But the fact is that while Trump and his team’s approach to negotiations are admittedly a wild mismatch for certain types of strategic diplomacy, they are a surprisingly good fit for others. He got nowhere with North Korea, Russia, and Turkey, but Trump’s bottom-line, year-zero, unsentimental approach to mutual-interest deal-making blew expectations, and most of his predecessors, out of the water in the Middle East, the Balkans, and Latin America.

That less-experienced diplomats were the ones thinking outside the box should not surprise, but it has made it harder for the bureaucratized establishment to swallow its pride and acknowledge the progress. Two of Trump’s ambassadors in particular, Richard Grenell in Berlin and David Friedman in Jerusalem, faced aggressive opposition from predecessors but turned out to be among the more effective envoys in recent years. Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, and Pompeo joined them in that category, and their efforts were boosted by veteran foreign-policy hands such as John Bolton and Elliott Abrams, especially in Latin America.

But it’s important to understand why they succeeded where they did — not from back-patting or score-settling but because they added valuable tools to America’s diplomatic abilities and revealed a crucial piece of information about entrenched conflicts around the world. If the Biden team is prepared to turn the clock back to 2016, it will rebury a diplomatic Rosetta Stone and stop an America-led march of progress in its tracks.

This is no idle worry. Biden and his incoming national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, have already said they’ll seek to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal, and in 2017, Sullivan criticized Trump’s approach to the Israeli-Arab conflict as not conducive to bringing peace. John Kerry, who was secretary of state during the Iran deal talks, will also join the Biden administration. He has come in for his own (deserved) round of mockery for his 2016 comments: “There will be no separate peace between Israel and the Arab world. I want to make that very clear to all of you. I’ve heard several prominent politicians in Israel sometimes saying, well, the Arab world’s in a different place now, and we just have to reach out to them, and we can work some things with the Arab world, and we’ll deal with the Palestinians. No. No, no, and no.”

We now know that Kerry, Sullivan, and the foreign-policy establishment were wrong about this. I don’t use the term “establishment” as a bogeyman; it is not a criticism to acknowledge years of experience in one’s industry. But conventional wisdom is not the same thing as accrued wisdom, and those in Washington must remember the difference.

So, what was it the conventional thinkers were so wrong about? In a word: ghosts. “The past is a foreign country,” goes the famous adage. The Trump team took this to its logical conclusion and all but excluded the past from negotiations.

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