The first episode of this three-part examination of Trump’s foreign policy had its lighter moments. As the focus switches from Europe to the Middle East for episode two, the mood becomes much more subdued. Trump begins to tackle issues such as the Iran nuclear deal, what to do with US troops in Syria, and the entrenched hostility between Israel and Palestine. Despite being generally opposed to American military involvement in distant conflicts, Trump is enraged by reports, early in his presidency, of civilian casualties in Syria when Assad unleashes chemical warfare on a rebel stronghold.
Deputy national security adviser K T McFarland remembers Trump’s reaction: “I wanna take him out!” “Well, Mr President,” she explained, “you can’t do that, it’s an act of war.” Trump’s determination to score points off Obama explains one military decision, but his flip-flopping over the response to Iran’s shooting down of a US drone in 2019 finally tested the patience of staunch adviser John Bolton. A planned retaliatory air strike was cancelled at the last moment because a member of the White House staff waylaid Trump with an estimate of the casualties. Trump had an entirely reasonable aversion to body-bags, but according to Bolton this isn’t the point: “It’s not the outcome of the chaotic decision-making, it’s the chaotic decision-making.”
Cold-shouldering the European leaders yet again over the Iran nuclear deal, Trump instead heads for Saudi Arabia to woo the sheikhs and the leaders of the Muslim world. “We put on a show . . . he likes glitz,” says the director of the Arabia Foundation, while a wide-eyed Steve Bannon likens the white stallions, rousing songs and sword dances to being “on the set of Lawrence of Arabia”.
The strength of Tim Stirzaker’s excellent series, embellished with special representatives, ambassadors, foreign ministers and top-level advisers, lies in its non-partisanship, its willingness to consider varying points of view. It also largely stays clear of the Trump Twitterstorm. Of the surprise appointment of Jared Kushner as Middle East peace broker, it’s observed that, while Kushner hadn’t written the “five books” on the region of the typical incumbent, he at least reached out to Arab leaders to elicit their concerns.
Palestine did not, apparently, emerge as a key issue from these talks. Husam Zomlot, head of the PLO mission to the US, recalls the difficulty of dealing with the blank-faced Kushner: “When [he] hears something he doesn’t like, he switches off.” The tone becomes ever more critical, but Trump’s base greets with wild approval every fiat that snubs diplomats, military advisers, and experts of all kinds.
Next week: Trump’s approach to Asia and a certain “Rocket Man”.
Episode two airs at 9pm on February 17 on BBC2