Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the late 1940s, is said to have declared that partisan politics must stop “at the water’s edge.” Few people remember Vandenberg, and it is not even clear if anyone ever took his ideal seriously, but it seems that fewer and fewer people even pay lip service to it. U.S. President Donald Trump seems to feel it’s perfectly appropriate to trash his political opponents while traveling abroad.
That’s disturbing enough. But the more consequential development in U.S. foreign policy—responsible for sowing instability and sapping American power—doesn’t involve partisanship abroad, but polarization at home.
It is now possible to divide the Middle East between “Republican Party countries” and “Democratic Party causes.” This is a phenomenon of at least the last decade, but it has become more pronounced during the Trump era. Aside from Jordan—there is almost no one in Washington who does not like King Abdullah—the lineups are clear: Israel, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia are Republican in the sense that the party’s leaders and voters are sympathetic to them or more sympathetic to them than Democrats are. At the same time, Democrats tend to identify with the Iran nuclear deal and the Palestinians.
Since the mid-2000s, Israel has moved into the pantheon of issues—along with the Second Amendment, low taxes, opposition to abortion, and a strong military—that are essential parts of Republican doctrine. Republicans point out that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, supports U.S. goals in the region, is not a source of transnational violence, and shares American values. Some analysts and activists would no doubt quibble with these assertions, but among Republicans who support Israel (and there are many), there is no reason to question them. At the same time, more Democrats have become ambivalent about the so-called special relationship with Israel. The issues that increasingly tend to animate Democrats—especially a rising group of Democratic Party elites and foreign-policy activists—include human rights, international justice, and distrust of military intervention. This has helped to undermine what was once a broad bipartisan consensus on support for Israel. It doesn’t help that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu worked overtime to try to kill the Iran nuclear deal, the signature foreign-policy issue of former President Barack Obama, who was very popular with his fellow Democrats.
Egypt has been politicized as well, in a way Egyptians themselves may not be aware of. This largely has to do with the Egyptian government’s own barely concealed enthusiasm for Trump after differences and difficulties with Obama over human rights and the resurgence of authoritarianism after the July 2013 coup that forced the Muslim Brotherhood member Mohamed Morsi from power. These are issues that don’t rank as highly for many Republican lawmakers, especially those who have articulated their concerns about the threat Islamism poses to the United States. Although high-profile Republicans, notably South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, have been critical of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the Republican rank and file tend to see him as an ally in the fight against extremism. In December 2015, when he called upon Egypt’s religious establishment to reexamine its teachings and interpretations against the backdrop of rising extremism and the Islamic State phenomenon, Sisi warmed the hearts of right-of-center commentators and politicians. This reflects an important difference in the way in which Republicans and Democrats view Egypt. The former—like Egyptians—tend to emphasize ideological bases for extremism, whereas Democrats and left-of-center analysts often focus on the way repression can lead to radicalization and violence.
Then there is the United Arab Emirates and its leader, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed. There is a confluence of views between the crown prince and leading Republican politicians and thinkers that Iran and Islamists are major threats. It is not that Democrats don’t agree, but, from the perspective of Abu Dhabi and Republican policymakers, their solutions to these problems—negotiation and democratic change—are naive.
Beyond the fact that the Emiratis and Republicans seem to view the world in similar terms, the folks in Abu Dhabi have become associated with Trump and his administration. Two episodes stand out in particular: First, in December 2016, Mohammed bin Zayed flew to New York City without bothering to inform the Obama administration—a breach of protocol—for a sit down with figures close to the president-elect at Trump Tower. Second, in what was surely one of the more unusual moments of the early Trump administration, the president assailed Qatar publicly on Twitter at the same time as the Emiratis and their allies imposed what they hoped would be a punishing blockade on the country. This fueled suspicion among observers that senior officials in Abu Dhabi had Trump’s ear on this issue.
More than anything else, however, Mohammed bin Zayed and the Emiratis sealed the impression the they are “Republican” when they helped sell Mohammed bin Salman—Saudi Arabia’s crown prince—to American policymakers and other elites. If there is anywhere in the Middle East that qualifies as Trump country, it is Saudi Arabia, the destination of his first foreign visit. The president has done everything he can to shield the crown prince from congressional efforts to hold him accountable for everything from the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi to the destruction the Saudis have visited upon Yemen. It’s important to note, however, that any media reports that referred to legislation and resolutions critical of the Saudi war effort in Yemen as “bipartisan” were stretching the meaning of the word. A recent measure to block arms sales to the Saudis garnered only seven Republican votes in the Senate, and only 16 House Republicans supported a resolution to end U.S. support for the Saudi war effort in Yemen.
With the exception of Egypt, what Israel, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia have in common is their public opposition to the Iran nuclear deal, Obama’s signature issue. No wonder they are “Republican.” For their part, Democrats have their own set of issues with which they are identified, which, not surprisingly, are inverse images of Republican issues. For example, not a lot of Democrats are advocating for Iran, but they continue to support the nuclear deal and are angry that the Trump administration broke out of the deal, needlessly sowing more instability in the region with the added risk of a U.S.-Iran military confrontation. This only contributes to the idea that Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates are Trump/Republican countries given how much they opposed the Iran deal and have consistently called for increasing pressure on the Iranians.
Besides the nuclear deal, the Palestinian issue is becoming firmly associated with Democrats. It is still helpful to be pro-Israel in U.S. politics, regardless of one’s party, but the terms of debate about the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians have begun to shift. This is a function of the fact that Israel now clearly intends to annex at least large parts of the West Bank and the way in which social media gives greater voice to Palestinians in Palestine themselves. Add to this the generalized leftward pull of the Democratic Party, and suddenly, stalwart defenders of Israel in Congress are publicly warning Netanyahu about annexation, Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke is calling the Israeli leader a “racist,” and his fellow candidate Pete Buttigieg is talking about conditioning aid to Israel.
Smart people on both the left and right might ask, why is this a problem? The other side is wrong and dangerous; putting our differences aside on foreign policy is bad for the country. But, at the risk of cliche, the world is a messier place than the polarized discourse of Americans, their politicians, and cable news regulars. No doubt U.S. foreign policy needs rethinking, especially as the post-World War II order that the United States built is coming to an end. But it is hard to accomplish anything if people start from the premise that Saudi Arabia is evil or that Israel is above reproach. Of course, there are many who recoil at the previous bipartisan consensus on the Middle East. There were terrible, costly mistakes that resulted from it, but the United States is a lot less likely to have success if Americans divide the world into Republican and Democratic countries.