The following column originally appeared in USA Today and is reprinted here with the permission of its author.
Last week the White House felt it necessary to point out that the United States only has “one president at a time.” But it is increasingly unclear if that is still Barack Obama.
Case in point the dispute over United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334, which reiterated the Security Council’s “demand that Israel immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem.”
The measure passed 14-0, with the United States abstaining. Typically, the U.S. would use its veto power on a measure like this, upholding the long-standing American policy that the final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian issue must take place between the parties involved and not be imposed from without.
However, the Obama administration chose to break with that policy. According to U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power, Washington was sending a message that “the settlements must stop.” But she also confusingly said the historic policy break “does not in any way diminish the United States’ steadfast and unparalleled commitment to the security of Israel.” It is hard to believe that even she believes that.
This was a bad move for President Obama to make on his way out the door. The resolution did not empower U.N. member states to take any action, so the administration cannot argue that it was taking this historic step to create real change. And by simply abstaining, instead of voting in favor of the resolution, Obama cannot even claim he was making a final, personal statement on the issue. It was “lead from behind” without the leadership, passivity pretending to be accomplishment. It looked like a petulant parting shot from a very lame duck.
The U.N. may also take a hit. On Saturday Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., pledged to lead a break with the organization, saying “I can’t support funding a body that singles out the only democracy in the Middle East who shares our values.” This could prove to be politically popular; a Gallup poll from February 2016 showed that 54% of Americans believe the U.N. does a poor job. And while 80% of Democrats view the U.N. favorably, only 43% of Republicans share that sentiment. You don’t have to have be a Manhattan real estate tycoon to see the potential in redeveloping the U.N. headquarters site in Turtle Bay.
President-elect Trump was the big winner politically. The Trump team has made no secret that it will be a much stronger supporter of Israel than Barack Obama ever was. Trump has a longstanding friendship with Israel’s prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu. Trump’s ambassador-designate for Israel, David Friedman, has called the two-state solution an “illusion” and called for implementing the 1995 law requiring the United States to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. And in the run-up to the vote on Resolution 2334 the president-elect convinced Egypt, the representative of the Arab world on the Security Council, to withdraw its sponsorship of the measure, though it still voted for the measure. Trump came off looking dynamic, effective and presidential. And his overt support for the Jewish state makes the liberal narrative that his administration would be tinged with anti-Semitism unsustainable.
The story line regarding Trump’s supposed election-year debt to Russian hackers also took a hit. The president-elect’s comments on the need for nuclear modernization prompted critics to charge that the incoming administration could reignite the Cold War, or even start a nuclear conflict. Yet weren’t we just hearing allegations that Russian President Vladimir Putin was Trump’s silent partner who basically handed him the election? Critics need to get their story straight. Russia is either our best friend or worst enemy, it can’t be both.
If we take Trump’s statements on the U.S. nuclear posture at face value, we see a message like Ronald Reagan’s; namely that American weakness brings instability, and we can better achieve peace through strength. We have not heard the White House make this case so forcefully in a long time, and given the chaotic state of the world, it is long overdue.
James S. Robbins, an expert on national security, foreign affairs and the military, is an author and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. His books include This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive.