Robert Kaufman, Robert and Katheryn Dockson Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University, is a political scientist specializing in American foreign policy, national security, international relations, and other aspects of American politics. He spoke to a February 18 Middle East Forum Webinar (video) hosted by Clifford Smith, director of the Middle East Forum's Washington Project, about conservative and liberal approaches to the Middle East in the past and their impact on future policies.
According to Kaufman, "both parties had a pro-Israel element before 1968," although at the time, he noted, the Republican party had more reservations about aligning with Israel than the Democratic party. That has changed "substantially," with "inflection points" occurring during the Reagan and Carter administrations. Currently, the new meaning for "liberal" and "conservative" is such that the Republican party is increasingly pro-Israel, while the Democrats are increasingly anti-Israel.
Under the George W. Bush administration, the Republican Party's consensus view on Middle East policy that emerged was that "enemy number one is Iran, and the most reliable partner is Israel." In contrast, the Obama administration pursued a nuclear deal with Iran in a "misguided strategy," while crafting its foreign policy in the belief that the major problem in the Middle East was the Arab-Israeli conflict. The progressive wing of the Democratic party has pulled the party further to the left, casting blame on Israel and influencing domestic energy policy, which has a major impact on the party's Middle East policy.
Democratic strategy on energy has "no logic other than blind ideology in sacrificing energy independence on multiple fronts."
Under the Trump administration, the Republicans endorsed "unleashing the free market," which put the U.S. on track to being "a world's energy superpower." That contrasts sharply with the Biden administration, which returned to Obama's policies in prioritizing "the Green New Deal and climate change." Kaufman characterized the Biden administration's eagerness to re-enter the nuclear deal with Iran as "Obama 2.0." He said that Biden has empowered and emboldened both Russia's Putin and the Iranian mullahs by "filling [their] coffers" and making America once again dependent on "Middle Eastern regimes." The Democratic strategy, according to Kaufman, is one of "no logic other than blind ideology in sacrificing energy independence on multiple fronts."
In response to Smith's question about the complexities of dealing with "dictatorships and double standards" that operate in the Middle East, Kaufman noted Jeane Kirkpatrick's position: "When there is not a viable, democratic alternative" – admittedly a rarity in the Middle East – "an authoritarian regime that is pro-American, or at least not anti-American, is the lesser moral and geopolitical evil." Kaufman believes this is the most advantageous approach for American policy in the Middle East, because "these regimes have the capacity to reform," as did South Korea and Taiwan. While the Bush doctrine to transform the Middle East into democracies "proved to be a bridge too far" given the lack of U.S. political will, Kaufman contrasted that with Obama administration's "misguided" policy toward Egypt. That approach misread the Muslim Brotherhood, and Kaufman said he wasn't sure Obama "cared whether the election in Egypt that yielded the Muslim Brotherhood was like Nazi Germany in 1932" in having "one election for one time for the purpose of eliminating elections forevermore."
The Abraham Accords achieved under the Trump administration support Kaufman's endorsement of the "lesser evil" as the more appropriate approach to the Middle East, with "Saudi Arabia ... the lesser evil to Iran," given the Kingdom's "rapprochement" with Israel. John F. Kennedy expressed a similar view when he said about the Dominican Republic that "democracy was his first choice, but he would take a dictator if the more likely outcome of the choice before him was the third choice of the anti-American Soviet totalitarian." That same logic applies, he added, to the Middle East "with greater salience probably than any other region in the word."
In prioritizing Israel as America's ally, Trump "called the bluff of generations of Arabs" and the region "adjusted to the reality" of Israel's existence.
Trump's diplomacy in the Middle East is a "fundamental distinction that emanates from Reagan," although Reagan "did not bring it to full fruition." Trump "abandoned the idea of a disinterested mediator." By prioritizing Israel as an American ally, Trump "called the bluff of generations of Arabs, who warn that if you move the capital to Jerusalem, if you didn't focus on the Palestinians as the key variable of stability, you'd have absolute chaos."
Instead, the reverse happened: "By taking Jerusalem off the table," the region "adjusted to the reality." Kaufman called Trump's move of the embassy to Jerusalem a "reverse inflection point," the "opposite of Obama's cave-in" on Syria and Biden's "cave-in" on Afghanistan. By keeping his campaign promise, "Trump sent a signal – and a salutary one – to the rest of the world that he meant what he said and said what he meant." The beneficial consequences of moving the embassy extended well beyond the Mideast, Kaufman said. Putin did not make the move on Ukraine under Trump that he is poised to make under Biden, and China did not intimidate Taiwan by violating its airspace under Trump. In contrast, the "Obama-Biden cave-ins had negative repercussions, not just regionally, but globally."
Turning to Turkey, Kaufman recalled that Obama called Erdoğan his "favorite leader" and began his "infamous apology tour" in Turkey. When he took office, Obama believed "the fundamental problem in the world" was "the Arrogance of American Power." This explains his administration's soft policies toward Iran, Russia, and China, which rested on the conviction that we and our allies "had been the problem." The Biden administration is following Obama's approach, which Kaufman said "was delusional then and delusional now."
Kaufman is skeptical that the Biden administration will follow through with its tough stance, believing that "if there's teeth to the democratic disdain for Turkey," it's "more rhetorical than real." He sees Trump's Turkish policy as "one of the deficiencies of his otherwise relatively successful policy in the Middle East, compared to his predecessor." Trump "downplayed the significance of the regime type and ideology to an excessive extent," seeing the nation as a "counterweight" rather than grasping that "it's an adversary," "no longer an ally," and does not belong in NATO.
Kaufman worries about the "quasi-isolationist" faction of the GOP and its "sanguine assumption that history is demolished."
Even though Kaufman sees the Republican party as the "healthier of the two parties when it comes to conservative internationalism in general and applied to the Middle East [in particular]," he is concerned about a faction in the party that is "quasi-isolationist." He maintains that it is dangerous to assume that in lieu of "America's global responsibility," the Europeans or East Asians will form "an effective counterbalancing coalition." Kaufman believes both Republicans and, to a greater degree, Democrats, are ignoring what he calls "inflection points" that in the past "have aroused us from our slumber."
That slumber is self-evident to our enemies, says Kaufman, who see that "we can't defend our borders," that our cities are "descending into Hobbesian chaos," that we've "sacrificed being an energy superpower" and cut our defense budget.
With the absence of Democrats like "Scoop Jackson, Pat Moynihan, 'Fritz' Hollings," who the past formed "an effective bipartisan consensus," Kaufman does not see a "corrective mechanism" within the party's leadership. He hopes that, given three more years of Biden, the Republicans can regain control of Congress this November, and that the "Republican party [will] galvanize us to the urgency of conservative internationalism with all its implications."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.