President Trump, eager to remove himself from the accumulation of scandals, snafus and bad judgement that so far comprise his presidency, decided to take a tour of Saudi Arabia, Israel and Europe to provide himself with some much-needed distraction. Saudi Arabia and Israel went according to plan. Europe not so much.
The Middle East
Saudi Arabia seems perfectly suited President Trump’s sense of style: grand palaces, lots of gold and fawning hosts whose archaic laws repress any possible protests. He danced with swords and told his hosts that he was not there to lecture them about their troubling human rights record, but rather to assure them of America’s strong support.
He did, however, see fit to berate Iran as world enemy number one. Iran does not bring clean hands to the party and certainly bears responsibility for sponsoring some bad actors in the Middle East. Iran had, though, in an irony no doubt lost on President Trump, just held elections and opted to re-elect the (relatively) moderate Rouhani.
President Trump moved right through the irony to the approval of an arms deal for his hosts, noting that “no discussion of stamping out this threat would be complete without mentioning the government that gives terrorists…safe harbour, financial backing and the social standing needed for recruitment.”
However, as Fareed Zakaria points out in his recent Washington Post column, responsibility for over ninety percent of the terrorist attacks since 2001 lies with Sunni jihadists – ISIS, al-Qaeda – and virtually none have been linked to Iran and its Shiite brand of Islam.
Saudi Arabia’s brand of Islam – Wahhabism – is especially radical, promoting the supremacy of Sharia law and violent jihad. Saudi money is helping to proselytise these ideas in other parts of the world, including Europe.
The Faustian bargain with Saudi Arabia is not President Trump’s. It dates back to 1933 when full diplomatic relations were established. The US and Saudi have partnered in resisting communism (pushing the Soviets out of Afghanistan) and in striving for stability in oil price and supply. They have disagreed on Israel, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Iran nuclear deal and certain aspects of the war on terror. As President Obama said in 2014, the relationship is complicated.
In striking a nuclear deal with Iran, the US has clearly started a process of potential rapprochement with Iran, which is not a bad idea for all sorts of good reasons. It does, however, put the US in a complicated position with two of its allies: Saudi Arabia and Israel. Both opposed the Iran nuclear deal, and neither has good relations with Iran.
President Trump went from Saudi Arabia to Israel, where he enjoyed another warm reception. Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, had a famously bad relationship with Barack Obama. Improved Israeli-American relations under President Trump were inevitable and the Israelis were not disappointed.
President Trump made encouraging noises and, despite lacking any substantive reason to say so other than his limitless faith in his own deal-making skills, he again proclaimed his hope for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
The essence of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s problem with President Obama was not that Obama was not smart or thoughtful or that he lacked a sense of history. Rather it was that Obama was, in Netanyahu’s view, ignorant of the underlying tensions between Israel and Palestine, and arrogant and legacy-focused in his approach to seeking peace.
While Prime Minister Netanyahu has much more in common with the US Republican party and, by extension, President Trump, it is as yet unclear that he has confidence or trust in Donald Trump.
Netanyahu and Abbas also share the same problem with Trump with many people: Trump is not thoughtful; does not read or digest information from serious sources; does not appear to have a sense of history; is impulsive in speech and behavior; has a casual relationship with the truth and appears to have difficulty factoring in much beyond his own immediate need for adulation and affirmation into his decision-making.
In the same way that Saudi Arabia is the ally that the US has rather than the one it wants, so Donald Trump is the ally that Benjamin Netanyahu is supposed to be able to rely on, rather than the one he truly seeks.
On Israel, the jury is out, but the superficial atmospherics are so far good. There is, naturally, more irony here too. In stating that he never mentioned Israel as the trusted intelligence source in his meeting with the Russians, President Trump unintentionally confirmed that Israel was, in fact, the source in question.
On to Europe
If President Trump’s negotiating style in the Middle East was conciliatory and more subtle than usual, he returned to his more abrasive self during his visit to Europe.
His first stop was Rome for an audience with Pope Francis. The Pope is a modest man who forsakes the traditional papal accommodation for something more modest. Donald Trump once tweeted that he did not like the idea that Pope Francis stood in line to pay his own hotel bill – “It’s not Pope-like!”.
Pope Francis must have been interested to finally meet the US’s prime-time showman. Both men have a strong sense of their message: the Pope to spread a broader message of love and forgiveness to a market of souls that is proving increasingly elusive; Trump to spread a message of empowerment to a demographic that has come to feel disenfranchised.
Trump smiled broadly, confessing that he had learned a lot and emerged with a strong determination to achieve peace. Pope Francis looked less enthusiastic. He probably also learned less.
Having pushed his way past the Prime Minister of Montenegro to his rightful position of prominence in a NATO photo shoot, President Trump settled into Brussels.
Eschewing the courtesies that European allies have come to expect from a US president, President Trump failed to say that which was appropriate – affirming Article 5 of NATO’s founding documents (presumably briefed that the first time NATO solidarity had been invoked was in favor of the US after September 2001) and instead berated fellow NATO leaders for failing to live up to their financial obligations.
Continuing to test Angela Merkel’s good nature and patience for foolishness, Trump showed a poor understanding of trade and criticised Germany for the millions of cars it sells in the US. From its $7bn plant in South Carolina, BMW produces 400,000 cars and is the top automotive exporter in the US.
Facts are stubborn things but rarely do they derail President Trump’s narrative.
Returning briefly to Italy, President Trump’s final act of intransigence was to decline to sign on to the climate section of the communique that was the official dispatch to end the summit.
While it is not clear that President Trump has thought deeply about the challenging issues of climate science, he is nevertheless not prepared to join his European colleagues in a principled stand to address the problem. The Paris accord, while far from perfect and perhaps not even enforceable, represents a serious approach to a serious issue.
President Trump, however, claimed he had more thinking to do.
On his return to the US, President Trump decided to re-engage with his Twitter account and continue his battle with “FakeNews”.
The tragic-comedic aspect of this trip abroad, as it is with the President’s domestic presence, is that the media must engage with him and write about him. Many, many, talented, thoughtful, analytical, concerned, professional journalists must write about someone whose only real talent is self-promotion. Because he is President of the United States, Trump must be reckoned with. The presidency is not a dry run: it is loaded with live ammunition.
There is no better way to end than this article than with a quotation from the editor of Der Spiegel, a highly respected German weekly new magazine whose cover is stunning:
“Donald Trump is not fit to be president of the United States. He does not possess the requisite intellect and does not understand the significance of the office he holds nor the tasks associated with it. He doesn’t read. He doesn’t bother to peruse important files and intelligence reports and knows little about the issues that he has identified as his priorities. His decisions are capricious and they are delivered in the form of tyrannical decrees…”
As J.K. Rowling put it on her own Twitter account in reference to Trump pushing past the Prime Minister of Montenegro – the “tiny, tiny, tiny little man” is home.