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Can bad men do good things? The idea that President Trump deserves a Nobel Peace Prize isn't as crazy as it sounds

Yesterday's ceremony on the White House lawn. Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Yesterday's ceremony on the White House lawn. Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images


September 16, 2020   5 mins

I wonder how many minds turned to Robert Caro’s magisterial biography of Lyndon Johnson when they saw footage of yesterday’s White House ceremony, at which Israel, Bahrain and the UAE signed the so-called Abraham Accords.

Caro’s ongoing multi-volume life of LBJ has everything. On one level, it is a political thriller. On another, it is a history of the US in the second half of the 20th century. It is so much more, besides, including a meditation on one of the enduring questions in history: can a bad person do good things?

Which brings us to Donald Trump’s role in securing peace between Israel and the UAE, with Bahrain now following and, soon, more Arab states. President Trump provides the latest incarnation of that question — the answer to which is plainly yes. History is littered with figures with whom one would rather not engage on a personal level, but whose contribution to humanity was immense.

Take, in our own times, Martin McGuiness and Ian Paisley. The latter was a bigot, who proudly trumpeted that bigotry and even flirted with paramilitaries. The former was almost certainly a murderer. For the bulk of their time on earth, they both lived lives that should have sent them to the hell in which they believed — and yet when they died they were widely and genuinely mourned, with a legacy of peace that endures to this day.

How about Steve Jobs? As close to a monster as the rules of the modern workplace allowed, but who used that monstrous ego and personality to change our world for the better. Or there is Henry Ford, a grotesque bully and a bigot beloved of Hitler and his circle. But one of the great industrialists, whose vision transformed capitalism and who enabled huge numbers of people to afford a car of their own.

More interesting, perhaps, than that simple question — and one reason why LBJ is so fascinating a figure — is a variation on it: can a bad man do good things for bad motives?

It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of the deals between Israel, Bahrain and the UAE and with Bahrain, both in their own terms and as harbingers of what is likely to follow. Diplomatic and political reality, as well as the Arabic concept of mu-wazana (balance), mean that the rest of the Gulf States and other Arab countries will follow. And thus, quite apart from the obvious lessening of one set of tensions in the region, recognition by Gulf states will cement an alliance standing up to Iran, a nation which threatens peaceful existence far beyond the Middle East.

Much of the credit for this must go to Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, whose story is itself an example of the enduring question. Mired in corruption allegations, with a trial due to start in weeks, Mr Netanyahu is a ruthless operator who ditches allies when they no longer serve his purpose and who will say almost anything to secure re-election. But unsavoury as he may be domestically, as a geopolitical strategist he is a genius. For almost any other Israeli leader, the security threat posed by the Iran nuclear deal would have marked a disastrous failure. For Mr Netanyahu, it provided the opportunity to regenerate Israeli relations with its neighbours.

Building on his long-term strategy of using Israeli strength and resolute defence of its security to persuade its neighbours that they have no realistic choice but to formally acknowledge its existence and build a relationship, the Israeli leader leveraged Arab opposition to President Obama’s Iran deal to Bismarckian ends.

But while the presence of Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed in the UAE were necessary for a deal, which led to Bahrain joining them, there was one figure without whom no deal would have been possible: President Trump.

A fortnight ago, the US leader was nominated by a Right-wing populist Norwegian MP for the Nobel Peace Prize. Understandably, the idea has been mocked almost universally. Understandably, because President Trump is an appalling figure — a man who stokes racist fires, who traduces democratic norms, who treats the office of president as a form of ego-massage, who bullies and who lies. His re-election as president might endanger the US’s democracy itself — and perhaps still more so if he is not re-elected and refuses to accept the result.

And yet. As Christian Tybring-Gjedde, the Norwegian MP behind the nomination, put it: “I think he has done more to create peace between nations than most other peace prize nominees. The committee should look at the facts and judge him on the facts — not on the way he behaves sometimes.”

In 2009, President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize for not being President Bush. He conducted himself with dignity and propriety throughout his two terms in office — but his foreign policy legacy was a disaster, with his main accomplishment a deal with Iran so dangerous and bad that almost all of Iran’s neighbours have tried their level best to scupper it.

And it would take some beating for murderous negligence than his refusal to back up his own language over Syria, when he announced in April 2012 that the use of chemical weapons by Bashar Assad would be a “red line” and then did precisely nothing when, a year later, Assad killed more than 1,400 of his own people with sarin gas. Obama gave off the vibe of a wise and good leader. The reality was disastrous for the US — and its allies.

President Trump, on the other hand, is a prize shit, who disgraces his office in ways more previously unimaginable with every passing day. But he is also responsible for one of the most significant and important breakthroughs ever towards Middle East peace. Which president is more deserving of a prize for peace?

Trump is hardly the first US president to embody this dichotomy: Richard Nixon, the only president to resign and a byword for paranoia, bigotry and the abuse of office, was also responsible for one of the great foreign policy breakthroughs of the modern world when he visited Beijing.

And then we return to Nixon’s predecessor, LBJ. He was corrupt, lied with impunity, was a megalomaniac, a misogynist and a bully. He was also a coward. He urinated into his washbasin in front of secretaries and shouted orders to his aides while defecating. But he also changed the lives of hundreds of millions of black Americans for the better through the civil rights legislation that he pushed through — when few others (including many of those in his administration) thought it possible.

What makes LBJ so endlessly fascinating is his motivation. He had next to no interest in the cause. As Caro’s biography shows, his interest in civil rights was — as with everything else in his life — entirely political. No southern politician could be elected president while the South remained so reactionary, so he used his skills to remove that problem for him — the skills of a lying, corrupt bully.

Civil rights may have been a vehicle for Johnson rather than a cause, but what are President Trump’s motives? For Johnson, civil rights were a means to an end. For Trump, Middle East peace deals are the end, but not because he has any interest in the region or in policy more generally. Rather, he portrays himself as the Deal Maker Par Extraordinaire. One day it is North Korea, the next Abu Dhabi. One may turn out to be a charade, the other to have substance. But both — and everything else — are about the Trump brand and the braggadocio that is its foundation. The components and substance of any deal, of any policy, are an irrelevance; what matters is the fact of President Trump’s involvement and how that is sold to the electorate.

And so, once more, we contemplate that eternal question of what makes a good person. President Trump may stretch that label to breaking point. But not quite…


Stephen Pollard is Editor of the Jewish Chronicle.

stephenpollard

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J A Thompson
JT
J A Thompson
3 years ago

I have no doubt many will disagree with what I say. I’m willing to learn from those with evidence to the contrary but, for what it is worth, this is what I have seen from the UK side of the pond.
I have always considered Trump to be the US Brexit; an indication to those in power that the ordinary people have had enough of being ignored, disparaged, humiliated and exploited by a governing class that has no understanding of what life is like for the majority of those whose welfare they were elected to manage.
I have read that Trump is the first president since Reagan not to start a war. He is repatriating US troops from various localities and has attempted to establish dialogues/broker deals with unfriendly states. Pre covid he had improved the lot of many ordinary US citizens of whatever ethnicity. His handling of covid has been as debatable as that of most other countries with the exception that he was prepared to countenance the use of hydroxychloroquine, which was shouted down but, I have read, is actually effective in the early stages.
From day one of his presidency he has had to deal with an opposition that, far from getting involved with him and attempting to negotiate in order to make the best of the situation for the people they are supposed to be concerned about, has spent all its energy endeavouring to undermine the democratically chosen government simply because they are not the ones chosen and, at the same time, neglected/continued the neglect of those areas where they still had influence eg. the numerous Democratically run cities which are failing.
The sheer, venal nastiness of the Democrats and their fellow travellers, as typified by BLM, XR, Antifa and other organisations and demographics (Hollywood, vide deNiro at the Oscars merrily crying’ F.. Trump’ and too stupid to realise that in that message is also ‘F… democracy’, ‘F.. the American voter’) makes you wonder how anyone could consider voting for them.
Trump is his own worst enemy in many respects; he offers his opponents too many open goals in his unrestrained tweeting and off the cuff remarks. The wrapping paper may be awful, the motivations for his actions may be inscrutable, but some of the contents of the package are worth having.
The choice in the coming election mirrors the British choice in the last one; one party unelectable by any sane person with the interests of the country at heart, the other equally unpleasant in some respects but with the possibility of doing what the ordinary people actually want.
I await the wrath to come!

G Harris
GH
G Harris
3 years ago
Reply to  J A Thompson

For the most part, Unherd doesn’t seem to attract that many nutters at the moment if at all so you should be safe from them, and good on you for having the cojones to express your honest opinion.

J A Thompson
JT
J A Thompson
3 years ago
Reply to  G Harris

Thank you.

Richard Slack
RS
Richard Slack
3 years ago
Reply to  J A Thompson

when Trump won his party had control of the House, the Senate and a large proportion of State Houses. He had a good opportunity to shape a political consensus but and reach out across the divide from a position of strength. He chose not to

J A Thompson
JT
J A Thompson
3 years ago
Reply to  Richard Slack

Did anybody give him the chance? He was on the defensive from day one.

Joseph Berger
JB
Joseph Berger
3 years ago
Reply to  Richard Slack

he was not given the chance, from day one the lousy losers declared him illegitimate, and sought to unseat him, anyone watching CNN at the time would have seen on an almost daily basis the claim that the latest “revelation” would surely lead to impeachment and his removal from office.
Maybe you didn’t see the most recent State of the Union speech following which Ms Pelosi, leader of the house, torn up the copy that is traditionally given to the speaker of the house.
Little children – in the political sense – might have thought she is just howing her contempt of President Trump, adults realized she was showing her contempt for the American Democratic tradition.
The failure to work together has come entirely from one side, and as the recent peace agreements in the middle east have shown, countries that have recognized that they need no longer be held hostage by the palestinian refusal to come to the table to negotiate seriously with Israel are now being left behind. The refusal to work together is entirely on one-side.

J A Thompson
JT
J A Thompson
3 years ago
Reply to  Richard Slack

He was never given the chance to. The Democrats stuck their fingers in their ears and started to scream the minute they were told they had lost.

Frederik van Beek
FV
Frederik van Beek
3 years ago
Reply to  J A Thompson

Surely the democrats are as corrupt and blind as the republicans, no doubt about that. The problem with the US is that, although being a so called democracy, there is almost nothing to choose from and the stagnation of social mobility is all over the place. Hillary Clinton was so arrogant to believe that the sub-classes of society would keep voting for the democrats because they have nowhere else to go to. In a sense she was right, they voted for Trump, from pillar to post.
Anyways, for me Trump will always be remembered for 1 thing and 1 thing only: seperating little children (less than 10 years old) from their parents at the Mexican border. May he burn in hell eternally for this.

J A Thompson
JT
J A Thompson
3 years ago

I agree, the US and Britain are both suffering from having to vote for the least worst, a terrible situation to be in; social mobility seems to be declining here too. I do not feel qualified to comment on the Mexican situation though it sounded bad.

Dave Tagge
DT
Dave Tagge
3 years ago

Edited: On that last point, I recall at least one occasion when some Democratic Party officials and activists tweeted photos of “kids in cages” due to Trump’s border policy, but then took them down because it turned out the photos had actually been taken during the Obama administration.

Edit – here’s a recent AP Fact Check of that very issue, because Mrs. Obama mentioned it during her speech at last month’s Democratic National Convention. https://apnews.com/2663c848

“The reference to cages is misleading and a matter that Democrats have persistently distorted.

Trump used facilities that were built during the Obama-Biden administration to house children at the border. They are chain-link enclosures inside border facilities where migrants were temporarily housed, separated by sex and age.

At the height of the controversy over Trump’s zero-tolerance policy at the border, photos that circulated online of children in the enclosures generated great anger. But those photos ” by The Associated Press ” were taken in 2014 and depicted some of the thousands of unaccompanied children held by President Barack Obama.

When that fact came to light, some Democrats and activists who had tweeted the photos deleted their tweets. But prominent Democrats have continued to cite cages for children as a distinctive cruelty of Trump.

The former first lady was correct, however, in addressing the removal of children from parents at the border.

The Obama administration separated migrant children from families under certain limited circumstances, like when the child’s safety appeared at risk or when the parent had a serious criminal history.

But family separations as a matter of routine came about because of Trump’s “zero tolerance” enforcement policy, which he eventually suspended because of the uproar. Obama had no such policy.”

Joseph Berger
JB
Joseph Berger
3 years ago

you apparently didn’t realize that the policy was introduced by the obama administration, and was being misused and manipulated by people trying to from day one prevent President Trump from governing effectively.
Your sob-story gullibility is an example of the media’s power to influence people by not telling them the full real story, just a very odd-angle snapshot.

J A Thompson
JT
J A Thompson
3 years ago

Clinton, actually both Clintons, and Obama wanted the wall originally. Obama and Biden built the cages, I believe. MSM keep quiet about that.
Stagnation of democracy (good term) has been growing in most ‘democratic’ countries, possibly due to the take over of globalists wh own all the media and all the parties.

Joseph Berger
JB
Joseph Berger
3 years ago
Reply to  J A Thompson

what wrath? an excellent, articulate comment, highlighting the reality of President Trump’s accomplishments against the ignorant foul-mouthed posturing of the attention-seeking far-left destroyers.

Alan Girling
AG
Alan Girling
3 years ago

All of the fairly normal complexities, fallibilities, drives and instincts that make up a typical human psyche, mix that with real world power, and you have a potent brew that can fly off in all directions. Each of the figures here are demonstrations of this. It doesn’t mean if a so-called character flaw is on full display then that is a threat to democracy. Is it the case that Obama’s ‘dignity and propriety’ contained no need for ego-satisfaction? That he had no interest in being perceived as a great statesman (or ‘deal-maker extraordinaire’), and was only interested in ‘the cause’? A lot of what people fear about Trump just amounts to his unseemliness. It is class-based disgust. The functioning of American democracy has a lot bigger problems than whoever happens to be President. Whoever is President merely becomes the country’s scapegoat while everything else burns.

Dave Tagge
DT
Dave Tagge
3 years ago

“He conducted himself with dignity and propriety throughout his two terms in office.”

I’ll challenge that. His administration included surveillance of an opposition party presidential campaign based on pretty flimsy evidence.

Richard Slack
RS
Richard Slack
3 years ago
Reply to  Dave Tagge

Obamagate, which Trump keeps bleating on about. He is the President, order it to be investigated

Dave Tagge
DT
Dave Tagge
3 years ago
Reply to  Richard Slack

A U.S. Attorney (John Durham) is currently investigating the origins of the Russia investigation.

It’s ongoing, and last month a former FBI lawyer (Kevin Clinesmith) plead guilty to a felony count. He falsified a document that was part of one of the FISA applications for a warrant to surveil Carter Page.

Joseph Berger
JB
Joseph Berger
3 years ago
Reply to  Dave Tagge

obama’s head of the IRS, the main tax-collecting body in the United States, took “the 5th amendment” when she was asked to testify about the blatantly biased behaviour of her department.
“Taking the 5th” as it is colloquially known, is generally understood to mean “I’m as guilty as hell, but you’re not going to get me to admit it publicly”

David South
DS
David South
3 years ago

Excellent article, made me think, made me uncomfortable, didn’t tell me the answer that someone wanted to project, just asked the question …..

G. Ian Goodson
GG
G. Ian Goodson
3 years ago

I know people who knew Rev. Ian Paisley personally. Some on the right, some on the left, some in his religious capacity, some politically. The one thing they all agree on is that the real Ian Paisley is almost the antithesis of his portrayal by the media.

Roger Inkpen
RI
Roger Inkpen
3 years ago
Reply to  G. Ian Goodson

Whether Paisley was a good person in private is not the point. We’ve all seen his barnstorming speeches with the constant NEVER peppered throughout.

Your last sentence should end: “the antithesis of how he portrayed himself to the media”.

Seb Dakin
Seb Dakin
3 years ago

It is also I think worth noting regarding Trump vis-a-vis contributions to peace, that unless I’m mistaken he’s not started, triggered or sponsored any new wars or overseas military adventurism, and I think you’d have to go back to Jimmy Carter to find another POTUS about which you could say that. In fact Trump has made moves to withdraw/extricate the US from Syria and Afghanistan, to much condemnation. I wouldn’t suggest merely the act of withdrawing troops from a live and ongoing theatre of conflict is necessarily going to lead to peace, but nonetheless I don’t think there is ‘more’ war going on in Syria or Afghanistan than there was under Obama. Trump gets next to no credit for that either. Certainly, if you listed the actual movements towards peace abroad during the Trump and Obama administrations and were told that the latter had received the Peace Prize, you’d wonder why. Take a look at the following site and tell me that it’s somehow laughable that Trump was nominated, when the guy responsible for the following actually got the Peace Prize.

https://www.stpete4peace.or

Go Away Please
JC
Go Away Please
3 years ago

I fail to see what Trump has done so far with this deal in order to merit the Nobel Peace Prize. Maybe in a few years if this does lead to other ME countries signing such deals with Israel, then yes perhaps.
But as far as I can tell what this does is formailse the relationship UAE and Bahrain already had with Israel. This in itself is just a start.
The other thing to bear in mind is this allows the US to sell arms to both UAE and Bahrain which, without a formal agreement was not possible. And let’s face it the US MIC is always keen to sell arms.

anatole.pang
LG
anatole.pang
3 years ago

The motives, the motives “¦

And do not forget the motives of Netanyahu.

And do know for sure: Iran is the Empire of Satan, the realm of evil.

And please, never talk about, do forget that open prison that is called Gaza Strip

Joseph Berger
JB
Joseph Berger
3 years ago
Reply to  anatole.pang

you should make it clear that if the gaza strip is in your words “an open prison” then it is because it is controlled by a murderous terrorist organization hamas. The Israelis pulled out of gaza completely, totally, 15 years ago.

Pat Davers
PD
Pat Davers
3 years ago

“”¦.and perhaps still more so if he is not re-elected and refuses to accept the result”

The only people who are putting out the idea that Trump might refuse to accept the result are Trump’s opponents. The playbook is to use the media to put the idea out in the public space and then if challenged as to it’s actual veracity, to say “well, the kind of thing that Trump WOULD do” and thus yet another preposterous story finds away around the globe.and people, such as this author, start to take it seriously…..

Joseph Berger
JB
Joseph Berger
3 years ago

On a superficial level, the article asks a very old question, dealt with in a very profound way by many writers, going back to biblical times. The Talmud – which is essentially 2000 years old, has hardly covered more than 5 of its more than 2700 pages before it is already asking that question.

Bringing it to the achievements of people who rose to positions of leadership – which usually requires an extraordinary degree of persistence, self-aggrandizement, and a very thick skin to ignore the constant attacks and criticisms that most leaders in democratic countries are subject to – leads to this sort of analysis where the objectve achievements of the person at the time are accepted by many (never all, in a democracy) even if the person is known to have various personal unlikeable behaviours.

future generations may decide differently, as we are seeing today with the behaviour of the historically igorant and politically brain-washed behaviour of the kiddes tearing down or defacing the monuments and statues of great figures of the past.

so if President Trump – and I hope his son-in-law the very smart Jared Kushner do receive the Nobel Prize for this huge achievement – I have little doubt that future generations will insist on an asterisk being put in the records to indicate that this was later “cancelled” or disowned by children who said he wasn’t a nice guy.

Dan Poynton
DP
Dan Poynton
3 years ago

Praising the two bullies, Trump and Israel, for destroying what many see as Obama’s truly greatest achievement in the Iran deal seems irresponsibly ignorant. In fact, this article smacks of blatant propaganda for the cynical Israeli-led anti-Iran coalition in the Middle East

Joseph Berger
JB
Joseph Berger
3 years ago
Reply to  Dan Poynton

are you an advocate for Iran having nuclear weaons?
are you an advocate for the world’s number one sponsor of terrorism?
if you are truly British are you old enough or did you learn any history in school to understand why people have such loathing of the memory of a person named chamberlaine, forever remembered as the ultimate appeaser.
that is how obama and kerry are seen today by clear-thinking people.