Whoever put together President Trump’s first foreign tour has a good grasp of the grand gesture. When he departs Friday, his main stops are Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Vatican, making Trump the first U.S. leader to visit the seats of the three great religions, one after another on the same trip.
But grand themes are sometimes too grand. And that’s the trouble with the Artful Dealmaker’s opening act on the world stage. The White House has built the president a big proscenium, but you have to wonder what’s going to get done underneath it.
Trump’s premier outing is about bringing peace, unity, and coherence to an embattled world. It’s about the power of personal relations, all the president can get done when he goes one-to-one with princes, prime ministers, and popes, and the superiority of a good guy’s common sense over institutional expertise.
Nothing wrong with ambition. And Team Trump’s right to use the president’s itinerary to state that many of the crises now besetting us are rooted in abrasive relations among some Muslims, some Jews, and some Christians.
But the president’s likely to return home saying exactly what he said after diving into the healthcare question with the idea of scrubbing Obamacare in a single stroke: “It’s complicated.”
“Our task is not to dictate to others how to live,” Trump said when announcing this tour earlier this month, “but to build a coalition of friends and partners who share the goal of fighting terrorism and bringing safety, opportunity, and stability to the war-ravaged Middle East.”
There’s more consistency here than Trump gets credit for. Leave others to themselves and join to destroy the ISIS. These have been his drumbeats all along.
But the president risks coming home with symbolic successes, like the Carrier jobs in Indiana, or last week’s “early harvest” trade deal with China[JL1] whose main feature is allowing poultry farmers to resume selling chickens in the Chinese market.
There are pressing questions to address this time, especially on Trump’s Middle East stops. The Vatican’s a grace note, but Trump then proceeds to a NATO summit and a G–7 session, where there are also high-caliber things to talk about.
Here’s what’s on the table:
• Saudi Arabia. Trump’s first stop is his most complicated. He’ll reassure the Saudis of his hard line on Iran in the wake of the Obama administration’s nuclear accord. But there are several problems here.
One, Trump’s softening his views on Iran. The administration announced Wednesday that it won’t re-impose the sanctions the Obama administration lifted. It also announced new sanctions, but these target individuals, not the regime, and the Saudis will be attentive to the difference.
Two, any long view of the Middle East has to recognize that U.S. interests lie in building a détente between Sunni Riyadh and Shi’a Tehran. They are the region’s emerging powers, and until they settle up the Middle East will be Washington’s unending quagmire. Trump can ease the Saudis’ nerves, but he’s flinching from the real challenge just as surely as his predecessor did.
Three, Team Trump’s going soft on human rights—part of his belief in leaving others alone—but the Saudis’ campaign against Shiite rebels in Yemen opens the U.S. to legal problems, as the Pentagon now worries: The Saudi bombing is indiscriminate, the U.S. has supported it, and there’s talk of war-crimes charges. Trump, as reported, may not go near the Yemen question, but that simply pushes it down the road.
• Israel. Trump has smoothed out the fractious relationship Obama had with Prime Minister Netanyahu. And the Israelis did Trump a big favor Wednesday, when Ron Dermer, the ambassador in Washington, went all out Wednesday to say Trump’s alleged leak of sensitive intelligence the U.S. got from Israel creates no breach of trust.
Iran, Syria, and the Islamic state are sure to be discussed. But Trump’s challenges are mostly those he set himself.
He’s hazy about his views of a two-state solution and suggests he may recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. Not long ago he observed that brokering an Israeli–Palestinian peace “is frankly, maybe, not as difficult as people have thought over the years.”
Trump’s likely take-home from Israel: Not much in the way of peace, unity, or coherence—and probably not much of anything.
• The Vatican. Francis gave Candidate Trump a blunt dressing down last year, when his famous wall was all over the news. So apart from being a good photo op, Trump’s stop in Vatican City will prepare him for the courteous disapproval he’ll find as he finishes up in Europe.
• Brussels. Trump’s attending a NATO summit next Thursday, and it will be awkward: He has softened since questioning the alliance’s purpose last year, but he’s still not shy about making other members put more into the NATO budget.
Here’s the best measure of what Trump’s up against: Foreign Policy reported Monday that “a ‘freaked-out’ NATO” will limit speakers to four minutes to avoid taxing Trump’s attention span. The president has his work cut out for him.
• Taormina. Trump’s final stop is a G–7 meeting in Sicily. Again, there are repairs to make. Trump approved of “Brexit,” effectively killed the Trans–Atlantic Trade and Investment Pact, and lined up with the anti–E.U. Marine Le Pen before France’s just-concluded presidential election. German Chancellor Angela Merkel practically sneered across the ocean after Trump’s victory in November.
There’s one thing Trump can do in Taormina to begin making amends: Tell the other six heads of state that when he returns to Washington he will announce his decision to honor the Paris Agreement on climate change.