The week in Trump-related lawlessness

Nov 23 2019

This week Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said something no US secretary of state has ever said before: that Israel’s West Bank settlements are not a violation of international law. He said this in spite of the fact that (a) a plain reading of the Fourth Geneva Convention—which Israel signed, and which prohibits the transfer of civilians to territories acquired by force—indicates otherwise; and (b) the UN Security Council, the ultimate arbiter of such matters, has repeatedly said otherwise.


This new US position naturally put Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu in a good mood. Though the Trump administration can’t retroactively veto Security Council resolutions that past administrations chose not to veto, or magically dispel a consensus among legal scholars, international law is in an early stage of evolution, lacking in adjudicatory mechanisms, so the opinion of the world’s most powerful government matters.

Bibi’s ebullience was short lived, though. Three days after Pompeo’s announcement, Netanyahu was deemed to have violated Israeli law—and violating Israeli law, unlike violating international law, could actually land him in prison. Israel’s chief prosecutor indicted him for dispensing official favors in exchange for expensive gifts and politically valuable services.  

There are parallels between the Netanyahu indictment and the imminent impeachment of Trump. Netanyahu allegedly used instruments of government to get media executives to guarantee him publicity that could help him win an election. Trump allegedly used instruments of government to get a foreign leader to guarantee him publicity that could help him win an election.

There are also parallels in the way the two men have reacted to their predicaments. Some of these were noted last month by Israeli journalist Chemi Shalev, after reports of an impending indictment elicited a pre-emptive reaction from Netanyahu. Comparing this reaction and Trump’s “reactions to his Ukraine train wreck,” Shalev wrote:  “Political persecution? Check. Innocent victim? Check. Partisan prosecutors? Check. Witch-hunt? Check. Attempted ‘coup’? Check.”   

He continued: “Their responses are so similar that one is tempted to assume that Trump and Netanyahu are advising each other… Circumstantial evidence shows that Netanyahu, for one, has certainly been inspired by Trump’s no-holds-barred audacity. The prime minister’s willingness to flout norms, ignore traditions and upend Israeli democracy would have been inconceivable had Trump not set a precedent and shown him the way.”

There’s been a lot of talk about Trump’s weakening of American political norms. And his malicious antics during the past week’s impeachment hearings certainly support that concern. But until I read Shalev’s piece, I hadn’t thought much about Trump’s weakening of Democratic norms in other countries. As Israel’s political drama plays out, and the country processes the unprecedented situation of a sitting prime minister under indictment, Netanyahu’s conduct will bear watching. 

Meanwhile, in Iran, Trump’s contribution to disarray in distant lands has taken a different form. This week his year-and-a-half-old sanctions regime—launched when he abandoned the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal even though Iran was complying with it—finally paid off. 

At least, it paid off if you’re a fan of inducing regime change in Iran—something that both Mike Pompeo and John Bolton (who was national security adviser when the sanctions campaign began) have in the past embraced. An essential step in sanctions-induced regime change is popular unrest, and last week, after the government resorted to rationing gasoline and raising its price, protests broke out across the country. More than 100 protestors—maybe more than 200—were then killed in a nationwide crackdown. 

You may think it regrettable when more than 100 innocent people die. If so, you’re not even close to having the stomach for sanctions-induced regime change in an authoritarian country like Iran. 

Trump appointees are made of sterner stuff. After the killing of  protestors had begun, Brian Hook, who runs the State Department’s “Iran Action Group,” cheerfully proclaimed that Trump’s sanctions “have expanded the space for the Iranian people to demand a more accountable representative government.” He emphasized that “we do stand with the Iranian people.” The ones who are still standing, at least.

To fully appreciate this administration’s approach to international affairs, you need to understand that, after Trump withdrew from the Iran deal, he didn’t just impose US sanctions on Iran. He used America’s economic power—in particular its unique influence on the global banking system—to coerce other countries into abiding by his sanctions regime even though most of them considered it a bad idea.

So there’s a kind of inverse symmetry between the administration’s treatment of Iran and its new position on Israeli settlements. Its settlements policy says that the US doesn’t have to play by the rules the world sets (even if, as with the Geneva Convention, it helped set them and signed onto them). Its Iran policy says that the world has to play by the rules the US sets—and that the US has the right to coerce any renegades into compliance. 

I wish I could say that this arrogance is a radical departure from past foreign policy. But in truth, Blobsters—I mean, upstanding members of America’s distinguished foreign policy community—who complain about Trump’s subversion of the “rules-based international order” are by and large people who have sometimes championed that subversion. (Most of them supported America’s disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq, a clear violation of international law.)

Still, even if Trump didn’t invent American arrogance, he has carried its ironic essence—feeling free to ignore international rules while expecting international compliance with American rules—to a new level of intensity. He came into office pledging a sharp break from America’s traditional foreign policy, but in many ways he has given us a grotesque caricature of it.  

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