Donald Trump and the Art of Betrayal

Iran and the Nuclear Deal

The betrayal began with Iran. The work had all been done by Obama and Secretary of State, John Kerry. Trump was the beneficiary of a historic treaty that made the world a safer place and that lifted trust between Iran and the US to a level it hasn’t been at since 1979. All Trump had to do was honor it. But he couldn’t do that.

For all the complexity of the negotiations, for all the complexity of the clauses, the deal was pretty simple: if Iran keeps its promise to limit its civilian nuclear program, America would keep its promise to lift sanctions. Iran did; America didn’t. Trump broke America’s word and betrayed Iran.

In 2015, when the US and all the permanent members of the UN Security Council (P5+1) signed the JCPOA nuclear agreement with Iran, the deal was that if Iran continued to be in compliance with the limitations on its nuclear program, the US had to continue to honor the agreement and hold back on sanctions. If Iran was not in compliance, then – and only then – could the US pull out of the agreement and snap back sanctions. But Iran was completely and consistently in compliance with their commitments under the agreement, as verified by eleven consecutive International Atomic Energy Agency reports. So, Trump betrayed Iran when he illegal walked away from the JCPOA.

Iran’s hardliners always said that it was naïve to make a deal with America. They warned that America would repay their honest diplomacy with betrayal. And they were right: Trump betrayed Iran.

The Kurds and Ethnic Cleansing

On October 6, 2019, after a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Trump removed US troops from the Kurdish region of northeast Syria, clearing the way for the Turkish invasion of the region that followed just three days later. Trump knew that Turkey would invade the Kurds, and he pulled back to make it possible. If there was any doubt that Trump knew his redeployment was an abandonment of the Kurds, his own statement on the pullout obliterates it: “We fought with them for three and a half to four years. We never agreed to protect the Kurds for the rest of their lives. Where’s an agreement that said we have to stay in the Middle East for the rest of humanity, for the rest of civilization to protect the Kurds?”

The betrayal was not removing the troops from the region. The decision to withdraw troops was, contrary to congressional and media objections, not only correct but long overdue. It was correct on moral grounds, on foreign policy grounds and even on facts on the ground grounds. The betrayal was abandoning America’s Kurdish allies by greenlighting the Turkish invasion. The need to pullout did not necessitate the abandonment of the Kurds. The US could have established conditions that allowed both the leaving of the region and the protecting of the Kurds. Trump could have engineered a diplomatic solution that protected the Kurds prior to pulling out. But that’s the art of diplomacy, not the art of betrayal. The US could have negotiated a settlement with willing partners or imposed a settlement on an unwilling Turkey by withholding arms from the country it provided $3.7 billion worth of weapons between 2011 and 2018. Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco and an expert on American Middle East policy, has pointed out that “A more effective deterrent than simply keeping US troops in Syria would be for Washington to make clear to the Turks that the United States will suspend all arms transfers and strategic cooperation with Turkey if it moves any more troops into Syrian territory.” It was possible to leave Syria and protect the Kurds if the US had as fully engaged in the diplomatic arena as they did in the military one. Instead, they betrayed and abandoned the Kurds.

In the Kurds, America had finally found a solid ally in the war in Syria. Too bad the Kurds didn’t find one. Trump knew, not only that he was abandoning the Kurds, he knew that the betrayal opened the door for ethnic cleansing. 190,000 Kurds were forcefully displaced by the Turkish army and their Syrian National Army partners. The Turkish troops were dangerous; the Syrian troops were more dangerous. 25,000 strong, many of them were former ISIS or al-Qaeda fighters who had fought against, and detested, the Kurds. According to Patrick Cockburn’s reporting, those radical jihadi Syrian fighters threatened to massacre the Kurds if they didn’t convert to ISIS and al-Qaeda’s radical brand of Islam.

Did Trump know about the jihadis at the front of the invading Turkish force for whom he opened the door? Did he know about the ethnic cleansing? A leaked internal memo from William V. Roebuck, an American diplomat in northeast Syria, to the State Department was tellingly titled, "Present at the Catastrophe: Standing By as Turks Cleanse Kurds in Northern Syria." He knew. Cockburn, in his book, War in the Age of Trump, reports that, based on Roebuck’s access to US intelligence about Turkish plans, he told Washington that "Turkey’s military operation in northern Syria, spearheaded by armed Islamist groups on its payroll, represents an. . .effort at ethnic cleansing." Roebuck’s memo also makes clear that the US knew that the Syrian National Army fighters were former ISIS and al-Qaeda fighters.

The UN reports that, as the tidal wave of Kurdish refugees fled, they were targeted by Turkish air strikes and artillery fire.

Over a five year period of the Syrian war, 11,000 Syrian Kurds were killed fighting ISIS as allies of the US. Kurdish officials insist that the US “promised they would not withdraw U.S. forces until a political settlement was in place to secure their future in the Syrian political system.” But the Kurds are very well aware that history has cast them in the role of the betrayed. They were well aware that the US was entirely capable of betraying them as they had betrayed them before. Well acquainted with their American ally, the Kurds had even opened back channels to Syria and Russia as an insurance policy against US betrayal. But as cognizant as the Kurds were that the US could betray them, Cockburn says that they were taken unaware "by the speed and ruthlessness with which Donald Trump greenlit the Turkish attack." They knew that their utility to the American’s had an expiration date, but, "[e]ven so, they did not expect to be discarded quite so totally and abruptly." Their 11,000 dead were brutally repaid by betrayal and abandonment to ethnic cleansing.

The Palestinians and a Separate Peace

Donald Trump’s "HUGE breakthrough," normalizing relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirate (UAE), is being inflated by some into a historic piece of diplomacy to be hung on the wall beside Carter’s negotiations with Sadat and Begin. Like that agreement, it is being sold as an historic peace agreement, and a peace agreement that brings great benefit to the Palestinians in its wake.

But a slower look at the sleight of hand exposes no benefit to the unconsulted Palestinians. And, unlike the reluctant Begin, who, according to Moshe Dyan, withered under the "fury" in Carter’s eyes and under his "dagger-sharp" glance, Netanyahu had forced upon him only what he has always sought.

The normalization agreement brings nothing new to the Middle East. Normalization of relations with the UAE was already the plan, and the annexation of the West Bank was already in the state the agreement celebrates that it places it in.

As early as February of 2017, the newly inaugurated Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were already preparing the world for this plan. At a February 15, 2017 press conference following his meeting with Netanyahu, Trump said that his "administration is committed to working with Israel and our common allies in the region towards greater security and stability." Netanyahu called the common allies "our newfound Arab partners." Notice they were already partners. One of those partners is the UAE.

But the plan is older than that. In a September 2014 speech at the UN, Netanyahu had already said that “After decades of seeing Israel as their enemy, leading states in the Arab world increasingly recognize that together we and they face many of the same dangers: principally this means a nuclear-armed Iran and militant Islamist movements gaining ground in the Sunni world. Our challenge is to transform these common interests to create a productive partnership." Done!

Netanyahu calls this plan "outside in." It is his adaptation of Israel’s supreme foreign policy guideline, the periphery doctrine. In Netanyahu’s outside in version of the periphery doctrine, you first pacify the outside and bring it in line: that means allying with the Sunni Arab states outside of Israel. Then, with the Sunni states on your side, you turn inside to Palestine and impose a plan on them. Severed from its Arab allies, and now too weak to mount an opposition, the isolated Palestinians would be helpless and could offer no resistance.

Outside in is what Trump, Kushner, Netanyahu and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed just handed the world. It is not a new normalization of relations: it is Netanyahu’s six year old plan. Nobody got anything new.

It’s not a new plan. And it’s not a peace plan. The UAE has never been in a war with Israel. According to Middle East expert and journalist Patrick Cockburn, "The UAE had long ago established security and commercial links with Israel." According to Rashid Khalidi, professor of modern Arab studies at Columbia University, the UAE’s air defense system and missile defense system are manufactured in Israel. They are made by Raytheon, which is an American company, though they are largely made in Israel. In July, two Israeli defense companies signed agreements with an UAE tech firm that works in artificial intelligence. And, even before full normalization of relations, senior Israeli officials had visited the UAE for a number of years. Reporting by UPI in January of 2012 had already revealed that the UAE had "discreet ties with private security companies in Israel to protect its oil fields and borders." They report that ties between the UAE’s Critical National Infrastructure Authority and several Israeli companies may go back to as early as 2007.

Four years ago, Trump promised the Palestinians the deal of the century. What they got was nothing. What Israel got was a capital in Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. What Palestine gets this time, according to the UAE, is an Israeli promise to "stop further Israeli annexation of Palestinian territories,” that is an end to the Trump/Netanyahu plan to annex 30% of the West Bank.

Part there are four problems with that promise. The first is that Israel already occupies and controls the West Bank. Annexation would merely formalize what is already true for Palestinians.

The second is that annexation of any part of the West Bank is illegal under international law, meaning that, at best, the deal grants what is already given.

The third is that the annexation permitted Israel by Trump’s Middle East peace plan has already been placed in suspended animation. So grievous a violation of international law would the annexation be that several officials and bodies have taken the unusual step of confronting Israel. UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, called the planned annexation a violation of international law and warned that "the UK will not recognize any changes to the 1967 lines." The EU rejected the annexation plan and went so far as to warn that "it could put the relationship between the EU and Israel in jeopardy." The foreign ministers of France and Germany also independently warned of consequences to bilateral relations with Israel. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, declared that "Annexation is illegal. Period." And UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, said that "annexation would constitute a most serious violation of international law." So, again, the deal makers gives what was already forced upon them.

Finally, the UAE decision to step out of the Arab consensus, enshrined in the Saudi peace initiative and make a separate peace with Israel without negotiating a peace for Palestine allows the Israeli occupation to go on with UAE approval. Trump’s signature on the deal means the US is walking away from the historical approach that a peace plan is not permissible without an Israeli/Palestinian peace plan. And this aspect of the normalization agreement represents a complete abandonment and betrayal of the Palestinian people.

But the most important problem with the Israeli promise to "stop further Israeli annexation of Palestinian territories" is that Israel made no such promise. Although Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed said "An agreement was reached to stop further Israeli annexation of Palestinian territories," that is a misrepresentation. The text of the agreement says, not "stop," but "suspend." So, while Mohammed bin Zayed was boasting to his people that he had stopped the annexation of the West Bank, Benjamin Netanyahu was telling his people that "There is no change to my plan to extend sovereignty, our sovereignty in Judea and Samaria, in full coordination with the United States." And, to punctuate his point, he added the exclamation mark that he would “never give up our rights to our land”. During a televised address, Netanyahu declared that he is still "committed to" annexation and insisted that annexation of 30% of the West Bank, as set out in Trump’s peace plan, is "still on the table."

And it is still on the table. A senior political source told Haaretz that "annexation is still on the agenda, and that Israel is committed to it. ‘The Trump administration asked that we temporarily postpone declaring [sovereignty over parts of the West Bank] in order to achieve the beginning of this historic peace agreement with the Emirates.’” According to Israel, Trump asked, not for a stop to annexation, but a temporary postponement.

Jared Kushner, who was part of the negotiating team, said ambiguously that Trump does not plan on giving Israel the green light to annex 30% of the West Bank "for some time." But any time is some time.

So how long is "some time?" When Trump was asked by a reporter whether Netanyahu was correct that the deal asks only for a temporary suspension, he answered only that "right now it’s of the table." He added that "I can’t talk about some time into the future; that’s a big statement" before nervously turning to his Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, and asking if he said the right thing. Friedman set the record straight: "The word ‘suspend’ was chosen carefully by all the parties. ‘Suspend,’ by definition – look it up – means ‘temporary halt.’ It’s off the table now, but it’s not off the table permanently."

So, the Palestinians got nothing: except betrayal. In exchange for keeping its promise to limit its civilian nuclear program, Iran got more sanctions and maximum pressure. In return for sacrificing 11,000 soldiers in alliance with America, the Kurds got abandoned to ethnic cleansing. Instead of a peace plan that was promised to be the deal of the century, the Palestinians got UAE approval for the Israeli occupation and American approval for Israel to normalize relations with its Arab neighbors without having to address the Palestinian plight. And that is the Donald Trump art of betrayal.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.