The so-called Age of Trump is also an age of instantly forgotten bestselling books, especially ones purporting to provide the inside scoop on what goes on within Donald Trump’s haphazard and continuously shifting orbit. With metronomic regularity, such gossipy volumes appear, make a splash, and almost as quickly vanish, leaving a mark no more lasting than a trout breaking the surface in a pond.
Remember when Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House was all the rage? It’s now available in hardcover for $0.99 from online used booksellers. James Comey’s Higher Loyaltyalso sells for a penny less than a buck.
An additional forty-six cents will get you Omarosa Manigault Newman’s “insider’s account” of her short-lived tenure in that very White House. For the same price, you can acquire Sean Spicer’s memoir as Trump’s press secretary, Anthony Scaramucci’s rendering of his tumultuous 11-day stint as White House communications director, and Corey Lewandowski’s “inside story” of the 2016 presidential campaign.
Bibliophiles intent on assembling a complete library of Trumpiana will not have long to wait before the tell-all accounts of John Bolton, Michael Cohen, Mary Trump, and that journalistic amaneusis Bob Woodward will surely be available at similar bargain basement prices.
All that said, even in these dismal times genuinely important books do occasionally make their appearance. My friend and colleague Stephen Wertheim is about to publish one. It’s called Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacyand if you’ll forgive me for being direct, you really ought to read it. Let me explain why.
Wertheim and I are co-founders of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a small Washington, D.C.-based think tank. That Quincy refers to John Quincy Adams who, as secretary of state nearly two centuries ago, warned his fellow citizens against venturing abroad “in search of monsters to destroy.” Were the United States to do so, Adams predicted, its defining trait — its very essence — “would insensibly change from liberty to force.” By resorting to force, America “might become the dictatress of the world,” he wrote, but “she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.” While his gendered punchline might rankle contemporary sensibilities, it remains apt.
A privileged man of his times, Adams took it for granted that a WASP male elite was meant to run the country. Women were to occupy their own separate sphere. And while he would eventually become an ardent opponent of slavery, in 1821 race did not rank high on his agenda either. His immediate priority as secretary of state was to situate the young republic globally so that Americans might enjoy both safety and prosperity. That meant avoiding unnecessary trouble. We had already had our revolution. In his view, it wasn’t this country’s purpose to promote revolution elsewhere or to dictate history’s future course.
Adams was to secretaries of state what Tom Brady is to NFL quarterbacks: the Greatest Of All Time. As the consensus GOAT in the estimation of diplomatic historians, he brought to maturity a pragmatic tradition of statecraft originated by a prior generation of New Englanders and various slaveholding Virginians with names like Washington, Jefferson, and Madison. That tradition emphasized opportunistically ruthless expansionism on this continent, avid commercial engagement, and the avoidance of great power rivalries abroad. Adhering to such a template, the United States had, by the beginning of the twentieth century, become the wealthiest, most secure nation on the planet — at which point Europeans spoiled the party.
The disastrous consequences of one European world war fought between 1914 and 1918 and the onset of a second in 1939 rendered that pragmatic tradition untenable — so at least a subsequent generation of WASPs concluded. This is where Wertheim takes up the story. Prompted by the German army’s lightning victory in the battle of France in May and June 1940, members of that WASP elite set about creating — and promoting — an alternative policy paradigm, one he describes as pursuing “dominance in the name of internationalism,” with U.S. military supremacy deemed “the prerequisite of a decent world.”
The new elite that devised this paradigm did not consist of lawyers from Massachusetts or planters from Virginia. Its key members held tenured positions at Yale and Princeton, wrote columns for leading New York newspapers, staffed Henry Luce’s Time-Life press empire, and distributed philanthropic largesse to fund worthy causes (grasping the baton of global primacy being anything but least among them). Most importantly, just about every member of this Eastern establishment cadre was also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). As such, they had a direct line to the State Department, which in those days actually played a large role in formulating basic foreign policy.
While Tomorrow, The World is not a long book — fewer than 200 pages of text — it is a tour de force. In it, Wertheim describes the new narrative framework that the foreign-policy elite formulated in the months following the fall of France. He shows how Americans with an antipathy for war now found themselves castigated as “isolationists,” a derogatory term created to suggest provincialism or selfishness. Those favoring armed intervention, meanwhile, became “internationalists,” a term connoting enlightenment and generosity. Even today, members of the foreign-policy establishment pledge undying fealty to the same narrative framework, which still warns against the bugaboo of “isolationism” that threatens to prevent high-minded policymakers from exercising “global leadership.”
Wertheim persuasively describes the “turn” toward militarized globalism engineered from above by that self-selected, unelected crew. Crucially, their efforts achieved success prior to Pearl Harbor. The Japanese attack of December 7, 1941, may have thrust the United States into the ongoing world war, but the essential transformation of policy had already occurred, even if ordinary Americans had yet to be notified as to what it meant. Its future implications — permanently high levels of military spending, a vast network of foreign bases stretching across the globe, a penchant for armed intervention abroad, a sprawling “national security” apparatus, and a politically subversive arms industry — would only become apparent in the years ahead.
While Wertheim is not the first to expose isolationism as a carefully constructed myth, he does so with devastating effect. Most of all, he helps his readers understand that “so long as the phantom of isolationism is held to be the most grievous sin, all is permitted.”
Contained within that all is a cavalcade of forceful actions and grotesque miscalculations, successes and failures, notable achievements and immense tragedies both during World War II and in the decades that followed. While beyond the scope of Wertheim’s book, casting the Cold War as a de facto extension of the war against Nazi Germany, with Soviet dictator Josef Stalin as a stand-in for Adolf Hitler, represented an equally significant triumph for the foreign policy establishment.
At the outset of World War II, ominous changes in the global distribution of power prompted a basic reorientation of U.S. policy. Today, fundamental alterations in the global distribution of power — did someone say “the rise of China”? — are once again occurring right before our eyes. Yet the foreign-policy establishment’s response is simply to double down.
So, even now, staggering levels of military spending, a vast network of foreign bases, a penchant for armed intervention abroad, a sprawling “national security” apparatus, and a politically subversive arms industry remain the taken-for-granted signatures of U.S. policy. And even now, the establishment employs the specter of isolationism as a convenient mechanism for self-forgiveness and expedient amnesia, as well as a means to enforce discipline.
The fall of France was indeed an epic disaster. Yet implicit in Tomorrow, The World is this question: If the disaster that befell Europe in 1940 could prompt the United States to abandon a hitherto successfulpolicy paradigm, then why have the serial disasters befalling the nation in the present century not produced a comparable willingness to reexamine an approach to policy that is obviously failing today?
To pose that question is to posit an equivalence between the French army’s sudden collapse in the face of the Wehrmacht’s assault and the accumulation of U.S. military disappointments dating from 9/11. From a tactical or operational perspective, many will find such a comparison unpersuasive. After all, the present-day armed forces of the United States have not succumbed to outright defeat, nor is the government of the United States petitioning for a cessation of hostilities as the French authorities did in 1940.
Yet what matters in war are political outcomes. Time and again since 9/11, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, or lesser theaters of conflict, the United States has failed to achieve the political purposes for which it went to war. From a strategic and political perspective, therefore, the comparison with France is instructive, even if failure need not entail abject surrender.
The French people and other supporters of the 1930s European status quo (including Americans who bothered to pay attention) were counting on that country’s soldiers to thwart further Nazi aggression once and for all. Defeat came as a profound shock. Similarly, after the Cold War, most Americans (and various beneficiaries of a supposed Pax Americana) counted on U.S. troops to maintain an agreeable and orderly global status quo. Instead, the profound shock of 9/11 induced Washington to embark upon what became a series of “endless wars” that U.S. forces proved incapable of bringing to a successful conclusion.
Crucially, however, no reevaluation of U.S. policy comparable to the “turn” that Wertheim describes has occurred. An exceedingly generous reading of President Trump’s promise to put “America First” might credit him with attempting such a turn. In practice, however, his incompetence and inconsistency, not to mention his naked dishonesty, produced a series of bizarre and random zigzags. Threats of “fire and fury” alternated with expressions of high regard for dictators (“we fell in love”). Troop withdrawals were announced and then modified or forgotten. Trump abandoned a global environmental agreement, massively rolled back environmental regulations domestically, and then took credit for providing Americans with “the very cleanest air and cleanest water on the planet.” Little of this was to be taken seriously.
Trump’s legacy as a statesman will undoubtedly amount to the diplomatic equivalent of Mulligan stew. Examine the contents closely enough and you’ll be able to find just about anything. Yet taken as a whole, the concoction falls well short of being nutritious, much less appetizing.
On the eve of the upcoming presidential election, the entire national security apparatus and its supporters assume that Trump’s departure from office will restore some version of normalcy. Every component of that apparatus from the Pentagon and the State Department to the CIA and the Council on Foreign Relations to the editorial boards of the New York Times and Washington Post yearns for that moment.
To a very considerable degree, a Biden presidency will satisfy that yearning. Nothing if not a creature of the establishment, Biden himself will conform to its requirements. For proof, look no further than his vote in favor of invading Iraq in 2003. (No isolationist he.) Count on a Biden administration, therefore, to perpetuate the entire obsolete retinue of standard practices.
As Peter Beinart puts it, “When it comes to defense, a Biden presidency is likely to look very much like an Obama presidency, and that’s going to look not so different from a Trump presidency when you really look at the numbers.” Biden will increase the Pentagon budget, keep U.S. troops in the Middle East, and get tough with China. The United States will remain the world’s number-one arms merchant, accelerate efforts to militarize outer space, and continue the ongoing modernization of the entire U.S. nuclear strike force. Biden will stack his team with CFR notables looking for jobs on the “inside.”
Above all, Biden will recite with practiced sincerity the mantras of American exceptionalism as a summons to exercise global leadership. “The triumph of democracy and liberalism over fascism and autocracy created the free world. But this contest does not just define our past. It will define our future, as well.” Those uplifting sentiments are, of course, his from a recent Foreign Affairs essay.
So if you liked U.S. national security policy before Trump mucked things up, then Biden is probably your kind of guy. Install him in the Oval Office and the mindless pursuit of “dominance in the name of internationalism” will resume. And the United States will revert to the policies that prevailed during the presidencies of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama — policies, we should note, that paved the way for Donald Trump to win the White House.
The voices that count
What explains the persistence of this pattern despite an abundance of evidence showing that it’s not working to the benefit of the American people? Why is it so difficult to shed a policy paradigm that dates from Hitler’s assault on France, now a full 80 years in the past?
I hope that in a subsequent book Stephen Wertheim will address that essential question. In the meantime, however, allow me to make a stab at offering the most preliminary of answers.
Setting aside factors like bureaucratic inertia and the machinations of the military-industrial complex — the Pentagon, arms manufacturers, and their advocates in Congress share an obvious interest in discovering new “threats” — one likely explanation relates to a policy elite increasingly unable to distinguish between self-interest and the national interest. As secretary of state, John Quincy Adams never confused the two. His latter-day successors have done far less well.
As an actual basis for policy, the turn that Stephen Wertheim describes in Tomorrow, The World has proven to be nowhere near as enlightened or farseeing as its architects imagined or its latter day proponents still purport to believe it to be. The paradigm produced in 1940-1941 was, at best, merely serviceable. It responded to the nightmarish needs of that moment. It justified U.S. participation in efforts to defeat Nazi Germany, a necessary undertaking.
After 1945, except as a device for affirming the authority of foreign-policy elites, the pursuit of “dominance in the name of internationalism” proved to be problematic. Yet even as conditions changed, basic U.S. policy stayed the same: high levels of military spending, a network of foreign bases, a penchant for armed intervention abroad, a sprawling “national security” apparatus, and a politically subversive arms industry. Even after the Cold War and 9/11, these remain remarkably sacrosanct.
My own retrospective judgment of the Cold War tends toward an attitude of: well, I guess it could have been worse. When it comes to the U.S. response to 9/11, however, it’s difficult to imagine what worse could have been.
Within the present-day foreign-policy establishment, however, a different interpretation prevails: the long, twilight struggle of the Cold War ended in a world historic victory, unsullied by any unfortunate post-9/11 missteps. The effect of this perspective is to affirm the wisdom of American statecraft now eight decades old and therefore justify its perpetuation long after both Hitler and Stalin, not to mention Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, are dead and gone.
This paradigm persists for one reason only: it ensures that statecraft will remain a realm that resolutely excludes the popular will. Elites decide, while the job of ordinary Americans is to foot the bill. In that regard, the allocation of privileges and obligations now 80 years old still prevails today.
Only by genuinely democratizing the formulation of foreign policy will real change become possible. The turn in U.S. policy described in Tomorrow, The Worldcame from the top. The turn needed today will have to come from below and will require Americans to rid themselves of their habit of deference when it comes to determining what this nation’s role in the world will be. Those on top will do all in their power to avert any such loss of status.
The United States today suffers from illnesses both literal and metaphorical. Restoring the nation to good health and repairing our democracy must necessarily rate as paramount concerns. While Americans cannot ignore the world beyond their borders, the last thing they need is to embark upon a fresh round of searching for distant monsters to destroy. Heeding the counsel of John Quincy Adams might just offer an essential first step toward recovery.
This article has been republished with permission from TomDispatch.
SOUTH CHINA SEA (Feb. 9, 2021) The Theodore Roosevelt and Nimitz Carrier Strike Groups steam in formation on scheduled deployments to the 7th Fleet area of operations. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Elliot Schaudt/Released)
The U.S. will have almost half of its aircraft carriers deployed in the Pacific in the coming weeks.
The South China Morning Post reported on February 14 that five of America’s 11 aircraft carriers would all likely soon be deployed there at the same time. Two of the carriers, the USS Carl Vinson and USS Theodore Roosevelt have been participating in a military exercise with Japan in the Philippine Sea, the USS Ronald Reagan is in port at Yokosuka, the USS Abraham Lincoln departed San Diego earlier this month, and the USS George Washington is expected to relieve the Reagan in a few weeks.
This is an unusual concentration of America’s naval power in one region at once, and it is being widely interpreted as a show of force meant for China and North Korea.
The Biden administration has made a point of making more shows of force in East Asia over the last year to reassure Asian allies that the U.S. has not forgotten about them. That isn’t surprising given the importance that the administration attaches to the “Indo-Pacific” and an active U.S. role in it, but in doing this it may also be contributing to increasing tensions with both Beijing and Pyongyang. We have already seen some of this in the back-and-forth between the U.S. and North Korea since last summer as North Korea has answered U.S. naval deployments to South Korea with additional missile tests and more bellicose rhetoric.
While these carrier deployments are presumably intended to signal American resolve and commitment to its regional allies, they could easily encourage China and North Korea to engage in their own reciprocal demonstrations of strength. They are also a reminder that the U.S. approach to East Asia is still very much a “military-first” approach that gives short shrift and devotes relatively few resources to economic statecraft and diplomacy. International relations scholar Van Jackson warned about the dangers of this approach more than two years ago, and since then the U.S. has only ramped up its military spending and deployments.
Because Washington’s attention has been focused so intently for the last four months on the war in Gaza and the other conflicts in the Middle East connected to it, it seems that the administration wants to show that it isn’t neglecting East Asia. The carrier deployments in the Pacific appear to be an attempt to “make up” for the continued massive over-investment of energy and resources in the Middle East.
The show of force may satisfy some allied governments, but it could also confirm the impression in both friendly and hostile capitals that the U.S. is overstretched and trying to take on too many tasks at the same time. The habit of reassuring allies so frequently has its own costs, including encouraging greater allied dependence, and when it is done too often it can have destabilizing effects on the wider region.
One of the principle weaknesses of U.S. foreign policy in East Asia is an overreliance on military deterrence. This tends to ratchet up tensions more than necessary and undermines credible assurances to adversaries. The U.S. excels at reassuring allies with its displays of military power, but because it often fails to strike a balance by giving adversaries assurances about its intentions, our government can feed the fears of Chinese and North Korean leaders and encourage them to assume the worst about what the U.S. is doing.
The carrier deployments suggest that the administration doesn’t understand the need for balancing deterrence and assurance. Failing to balance the two risks making conflict based on a miscalculation more likely. As the Quincy Institute’s Michael Swaine recently wrote about U.S. deterrence and Taiwan, “This balance is essential because, if the level of punishment or denial capability acquired is in fact seen as threatening the adversary’s most vital interests, the adversary, rather than being deterred from taking aggressive action, will become more inclined to undertake or threaten preemptive or punishing moves of its own in order to protect those interests, thus increasing, rather than decreasing, the chance of conflict.”
By relying so much on shows of force designed to intimidate China, the Biden administration increases the risk of a crisis.
The potential danger with North Korea is arguably even greater, since the North Korean government has a long history of responding to U.S. and allied pressure with its own provocations and threats. To the extent that Pyongyang perceives the deployment of so many carriers to the Pacific as directed even partly at North Korea, Kim Jong-un may conclude that he needs to show off his country’s own capabilities with additional missile tests and possibly even a new nuclear test.
Last year, North Korea reacted very angrily to the arrival of the USS Ronald Reagan in Busan, so it seems reasonable to expect an even harsher response if there are multiple carriers in the vicinity. Given the increasingly hostile rhetoric already coming from Pyongyang in the last few months, it would not take much for a new standoff between the U.S. and North Korea to begin.
The U.S. can ill afford a new crisis in East Asia on top of the other conflicts that it is involved in, but its overly militarized approach to the region is not the way to avoid it. If Washington wants to make conflicts in East Asia less likely, it will need to do a much better job of understanding its adversaries’ thinking and of offering them assurances that they can believe. Right now, the U.S. is doing far too little of both, and that is making the U.S. and its allies less secure than they could be.
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Left-to-right: Senator-elect Ted Budd (R-N.C.); Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the Senate Minority Leader; Senator-elect Katie Britt (R-AL); and Senator-elect J.D. Vance (R-OH) pose for a photo before meeting in Leader McConnell’s office, at the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, November 15, 2022. (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA)
The so-called GOP “civil war” over the role the United States should play in the world made headlines earlier this week when the Senate finally passed a national security supplemental that provides $60 billion in aid for Ukraine and $14 billion for Israel.
The legislation, which was supported by President Joe Biden and the overwhelming majority of the Senate’s Democratic caucus, proved more controversial among Republicans. Twenty-two GOP Senators voted in favor of the legislation, while 27 opposed it.
An analysis of the votes shows an interesting generational divide within the Republican caucus.
Each of the five oldest Republicans in the Senate — and nine of the ten oldest — voted in favor of the supplemental spending package. Conversely, the six youngest senators, and 12 of the 14 youngest, opposed it.
Equally striking was the breakdown of votes among Republicans based on when they assumed their current office. Of the 49 sitting GOP Senators, 30 were elected before Donald Trump first became the party’s presidential candidate in 2016. Eighteen of those 30 supported the aid legislation. Of the members who came to office in 2017 or later, only four voted to advance the bill, while 15 voted against.
The difference in votes among those elected since 2016 is likely partly attributable to Trump’s unconventional approach to foreign policy. The Republican party establishment during the Cold War and Global War on Terror is often associated with hawkishness, including towards Russia. While the party has always carried some skepticism toward foreign aid, some of the most significant spending increases have taken place during the presidencies of Republicans Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
Trump, however, won in 2016 in part for his open disdain for mission creep after the GWOT, what he called the failed war in Iraq, and foreign aid he believed made countries dependents rather than reciprocal partners and allies.
“[Trump] certainly created the cognitive space,” Brandan Buck, a U.S. Army veteran and historian of GOP foreign policy, tells RS. “He's more of an intuitive thinker than a person of principle, but I think him being on the scene, prying open the Overton window has allowed for a greater array of dissenting voices.”
Others have argued that the trends are perhaps also indicative of the loyalty that Republicans who assumed their offices during the Trump presidency feel toward him. Trump spoke out forcefully against the legislation in advance of the vote.
“WE SHOULD NEVER GIVE MONEY ANYMORE WITHOUT THE HOPE OF A PAYBACK, OR WITHOUT “STRINGS” ATTACHED. THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA SHOULD BE “STUPID” NO LONGER!,” the former president wrote on the social media platform Truth Social the weekend before the vote.
The vote cannot only be explained by ideology, as some typically hawkish allies of Trump, like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) ultimately voted against the package. Graham is a staunch supporter of Israel, has voted for previous Ukraine aid packages, and in the past called aid for Ukraine “a good investment” and “the best money we’ve ever spent.” By the time the vote on the most recent spending package came around, Graham was lamenting the lack of border security provisions and echoing Trump’s argument that aid to Ukraine should be a “loan.”
Meanwhile, Senators took note of the generational gap, and the debate spilled over into the public. .
“Nearly every Republican Senator under the age of 55 voted NO on this America Last bill,” wrote Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-Mo.), 48, on the social media platform X. “Things are changing just not fast enough.” Schmitt was elected in 2022.
“Youthful naivety is bliss, the wisdom of age may save the west,” retorted Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) “Reagan may be dead, but his doctrine saved the world during less dangerous times than these. If the modern Marx (Putin for the youngsters) restores the USSR while we pretend it’s not our problem, God help us.” Cramer, 63, was sworn in in 2019, making him one of the handful of recently elected senators to support the aid legislation.
“I like Kevin, but come on, man, have some self-awareness,” Sen. J.D. Vance fired back. “This moment calls out for many things, but boomer neoconservatism is not among them.”
Vance, who at 39 is the youngest Republican member of the Senate, noted in his post that “the fruits of this generation in American leadership is: quagmire in Afghanistan, war in Iraq under false pretenses.” He said younger Americans were disillusioned with that track record.
Buck, who served several tours in the Afghanistan war, and whose research includes generational trends in U.S. foreign policy thinking, pointed out that there is strong historical precedent for believing that age and generation affect how members of Congress view America’s role in the world.
“It's certainly not unusual for there to be generational trends in foreign policy thinking, especially within the Republican Party,” Buck told RS. Following the end of World War II, he said, it took “a full churning” of the conservative movement to replace old-school non-interventionist Republicans and to get the party in line with the Cold War consensus. “I think what we're seeing now is something similar but in reverse with a generation of conservatives.”
He added that the failures of the War on Terror resulted in a deep skepticism of the national security state and the Republican party establishment. Opinion polling and trends show that the American public that grew up either during or in the shadow of the disastrous military campaigns in the Greater Middle East is generally opposed to military intervention and more questioning of American institutions.
“All the energy on FP [foreign policy] in the GOP right now is with the younger generation that wants fundamental transformation of USFP [U.S. foreign policy],” noted Justin Logan, director of defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, on X. “The self-satisfied, insular neocons who loathe their voters’ FP views are a dying breed.”
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Egyptian President Anwar Sadat shakes hands with U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in September 1978. (Public Domain photo courtesy of Carter Library)
Since October, Egypt has joined most of the international community in calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. With Egypt being the only Arab country to border Gaza, Cairo’s stakes are high. The longer Israel’s war on the besieged enclave continues, the threats to Egypt’s economy, national security, and political stability will become more serious.
Located along the Gaza-Egypt border is Rafah, a 25-square-mile city that until recently was home to 300,000 Palestinians. Now approximately 1.4 million Palestinians are sheltering in Rafah because of the Israeli military’s wanton destruction of Gaza City, Khan Younis, and other parts of the Strip. Having asserted that four Hamas battalions are now in Rafah, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared that deploying Israeli forces to this Palestinian city is necessary for his country to defeat Hamas amid this war. As of writing, Israel’s military is preparing to launch a campaign for Rafah.
Officials in Cairo fear that Israeli military operations in Rafah could result in a large number of Palestinians entering the Sinai. “An Israeli offensive on Rafah would lead to an unspeakable humanitarian catastrophe and grave tensions with Egypt,” said European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on February 10.
Not only could such a scenario fuel massive amounts of friction between Cairo and Tel Aviv, but it could also severely heighten tensions between the Egyptian public and President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi’s government. It’s easy to imagine a mass expulsion of Palestinians from Gaza into Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, which would amount to essentially a “Nakba 2.0,” triggering widespread unrest in Egypt if the government in Cairo is widely seen by Egyptians as playing a role in permitting, if not facilitating, such an ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from Gaza. Along with economic considerations, this is one of the main reasons why Cairo has articulated that Israel depopulating Gaza of Palestinians and forcing them into Egypt is a red line that Tel Aviv must not cross.
“The biggest concern for Cairo is related to the fate of the [Palestinians in Gaza] forcibly evacuated by the Israelis and who might find a ‘safe haven’ in Sinai. An uncontrolled influx of Palestinians into the [Sinai] Peninsula would be an enormous burden on Egypt, which would have to manage a problematic situation from a political and security point of view, as well as having to justify internally to its own public opinion an imposition that came from outside,” Giuseppe Dentice, head of the Middle East and North Africa Desk at the Italian Center for International Studies, told RS.
“It is no coincidence that Cairo has reinforced the border with Gaza, closed the Rafah crossing, and warned Israel that any unilateral action involving a forced exodus of the Strip’s inhabitants to Egyptian territory could jeopardize not only bilateral relations, but the preconditions for peace and stability guaranteed in the [Camp David Accords],” added Dentice.
On February 15, Maxar Technologies, a Colorado-headquartered space technology company, captured satellite images showing Egypt’s construction of a wall roughly two miles west of the Egypt-Gaza border. The following day, the London-based Sinai Foundation for Human Rights said that this construction “is intended to create a high-security gated and isolated area near the borders with the Gaza Strip, in preparation for the reception of Palestinian refugees in the case of [a] mass exodus.”
What might happen to the Camp David Accords?
On February 11, two Egyptian officials and one Western diplomat told the Associated Press that Cairo might suspend the 1979 Camp David Accords if Israeli troops wage an incursion into Rafah. A day later, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry denied such reports about his government’s plans to freeze the peace treaty with Israel, yet he emphasized that Egypt’s continued adherence to the 1979 deal would depend on Tel Aviv reciprocating.
Alarming to Egyptian officials were Netanyahu’s statements late last year about the Israeli military taking control of the Philadelphi Corridor (a nine-mile-long demilitarized buffer zone between Gaza and Egypt which was established in accordance with Egypt and Israel’s peace treaty) because such a move on Israel’s part would be a breach of the Camp David Accords.
Are Egyptian officials serious about possibly freezing the historic peace deal? Or does such talk amount to empty threats issued for political purposes at home, as well as pursuing certain Egyptian aims vis-à-vis Washington and Tel Aviv? Mouin Rabbani, a political analyst and co-editor of Jadaliyya, told RS that if these statements from anonymous Egyptian officials are geared toward a domestic audience but Cairo doesn’t follow through, Sisi’s government could have a “potentially serious problem on its hands.”
Ahmed Aboudouh, an associate fellow with the Chatham House and a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council, doubts that Egypt would go as far as suspending the Camp David Accords. “In the end, Egypt is unlikely to take the first step to tear the treaty up unilaterally,” he said.
But what Egypt is doing is embracing “discursive strategic posturing” whereby Cairo uses “rhetorical escalation” and directs messages at three audiences, Aboudouh told RS. First is the domestic audience to say that Cairo is standing up for Egypt’s core security interests as well as the Palestinian cause. The second is Washington to relay the Egyptian government’s anger at the Biden administration for not stopping Israeli actions that threaten to displace Palestinians into the Sinai. Third is to Netanyahu, generals in the Israeli Defense Forces, and the Israeli intelligence community.
Gordon Gray, a former U.S. Ambassador to Tunisia, also discounts recent suggestions that Cairo would suspend its peace treaty with Israel for three main reasons. “First, Egypt does not seek military confrontation — even an inadvertent one — with Israel. Second, Egypt does not want to risk losing U.S. military assistance ($1.3 billion annually), which was granted as a direct result of the Camp David Accords. Finally, while Egypt abhors the Israeli military campaign in Gaza, it shares Israel’s views about the threat Hamas poses,” said Gray in an interview with RS.
What would come from Egypt freezing the treaty?
Despite many experts believing that Egypt would not freeze the Camp David Accords, that potential scenario should be considered. There are important questions to raise about what it could lead to in terms of region-wide ramifications, as well as Cairo’s relationships with Western capitals. But it’s difficult to predict how events would unfold if Egypt took that step because there would be so many unknown variables in play.
Egypt could act in different ways after suspending the peace treaty with Israel. Rabbani asked, “Would it simply declare the peace treaty suspended and leave it at that or would it stop implementing provisions of that treaty?”
Regardless, any freezing of the Camp David Accords by Egypt would inevitably bring a layer of instability to Egyptian-Israeli relations never seen since Jimmy Carter’s administration, which — with help from Iran, Morocco, and Romania — brought Egypt’s then-President Anwar Sadat and Israel’s then-Prime Minister Menachim Begin together in northern Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains to sign the peace treaty in September 1978. The response from Washington would likely be extreme, particularly given how central Egyptian-Israeli peace has been to U.S. foreign policy agendas in the Middle East for almost half a century while surviving a host of regional crises, including Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and all the previous Gaza wars.
“The U.S. is certain to act true to form and retaliate against Egypt without holding Israel in any way accountable for producing this crisis, and Washington may well cease foreign assistance to Egypt, which is a direct function of its peace treaty with Israel. The EU will probably announce it is launching an investigation of the Egyptian school curriculum or some other nonsensical initiative,” Rabbani told RS.
Irrespective of how Egypt approaches its relationship with Israel, the fact that officials in Cairo are suggesting a potential freeze of the Camp David Accords speaks volumes about the Gaza war’s impact on Israel’s diplomatic standing in the Arab world.
With the probability of more Arab countries joining the Abraham Accords in the foreseeable future having essentially dropped to zero, the pressing question is not which Arab government might be next to normalize with Tel Aviv. The focus has shifted to questions about how Arab countries already in the normalization camp, such as Egypt, will manage their formalized relationships with Israel at a time in which Israeli behavior in Gaza is widely seen across the Arab-Islamic world as genocidal.