Is Rex Tillerson clueless?

No, not as a general matter. But when it comes to Middle East, he may be.

Consider this statement by the Secretary of State:

We solve the Israeli Palestinian peace dilemma, we start solving a lot of the peace throughout the Middle East region.

We’ve been railing against this sort of nonsense for almost the entire 15 years (as of this weekend) of Power Line’s existence. Tillerson’s statement is a particularly incoherent version of the view, often expressed by the Obama administration but not confined to it, that the Israeli-Palestinian impasse is the source of the difficulties that plague the wider region. What does it mean to “solv[e] a lot of the peace” in the Middle East? Are we seeking peace with ISIS?

Two big problems plague the Middle East. The first is jihadist terrorist groups, most notably ISIS. Does Tillerson believe that the creation of a Palestinian state would cause these groups to eschew jihad? I doubt it.

Tillerson may believe that the creation of a Palestinian state would facilitate the building of an Arab coalition to combat ISIS (through a “whole lot” of war). But this claim is only slightly more plausible than the view that a settlement in Israel would cause ISIS to wither away. As Caroline Glick says: “The notion that it is necessary to empower the PLO to win Arab allies when the Arabs are beating a path to Israel’s door begging for help in defeating Sunni jihadists and Iran is ridiculous.”

Arab powers oppose Sunni jihadists, when they do, out of self interest. The jihadists, or some of them, pose an existential threat to their rule and their state. Regardless of what’s occurring on the West Bank, Arab rulers prefer not to see their territory absorbed into a “caliphate.”

The calculus is the same when it comes to the other big problem in the Middle East — Iran. The mullahs seek regional dominance. The Arab states prefer that Iran not dominate the region and undermine their rule from within. That’s why they are beating a path to Israel’s door notwithstanding the status of Palestinians.

So Tillerson’s statement is clueless about the Middle East. That doesn’t mean, though, that Tillerson is. The Arab states have an interest in pretending to care about the Palestinians. The pretense plays well domestically.

Accordingly, the U.S. also has an interest in pretending to care about a “peace” agreement, as it tries to firm up a coalition of Arab states to oppose ISIS and Iran. President Trump and his Secretary of State provide cover for Arab leaders by talking about the need for Israel to make concessions in order to reach an agreement with the Palestinians.

Is that what’s going on? I don’t know. My guess is that Tillerson and the president are doing more than putting on a show. Tillerson’s statement may be idiotic, but it’s been the conventional wisdom in Washington for decades, and it’s the gospel at the State Department. There’s no reason to assume that Tillerson and Trump are immune to such thinking.

Thus, when Tillerson and Trump, following in the footsteps of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, start “putting a lot of pressure” (Tillerson’s words) on Israel, we should be concerned. It may be just for show, but more likely it isn’t.

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