President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia — the first stop on his first overseas trip, beginning Friday — is designed to solidify what the administration envisions as its premier partnership in the Arab and Muslim world, effectively anointing the kingdom as Islam’s political as well as religious leader.
During two full days in Riyadh, Trump plans to sign bilateral military, economic and counterterrorism agreements with the Saudis, signaling an end to what both Riyadh and Washington have called the estrangement of the Obama years.
Best of all, for a White House enmeshed in constant scandal and an exhausted media wrung out from a week of nonstop bombshells, Trump and “nearly every senior White House adviser will be aboard Air Force One on Friday afternoon for the more-than 12-hour flight to Riyadh.”
I asked a number of foreign policy experts what could be gained from the trip. “Honestly, if we just get through it without some gaffe or crisis, that will be a success,” says frequent Trump critic and former State Department official Eliot Cohen. That was a common reaction. “Realistically, the best I can think of is some narrowing of difference and greater pragmatism on Syria policy,” Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution told me. “But more within reach is just a calm, smooth, somewhat superficial or cosmetic visit.”
Many gurus expressed dismay at the prospect of a major address on Islam in Saudi Arabia. Word that Stephen Miller, who helped draft the inaugural address and the travel ban (both disasters), is working on this speech sends shivers up the spines of many onlookers.
Isn’t there something Trump could do? A bit more optimistically, Rob Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy explains, “President Trump succeeds on this trip merely by going to these capitals and sending the message that the Obama-era in the Middle East — distancing America from our traditional allies, bypassing leaders by speaking over their heads to their people, encouraging a strategic balance between terrorist-supporting Iran and Saudi-led Arab states, a stop-all-settlement-construction-before-we-can-talk approach to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking — is over.” He adds, “In that sense, he chalks up a ‘big win’ just by applying the Woody Allen rule about showing up.” More substantively, Satloff thinks a positive outcome would be signs of a new anti-jihadist alliance that includes Israel and Sunni allies and “an Arab/NATO consortium to ensure stability, security and reasonably effective governance in the lands soon to be liberated from ISIS domination in eastern Syria and western Iraq, essential to ensure that ‘son of ISIS’ doesn’t emerge from the ashes of ISIS.”
While Satloff also thinks progress can be made on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, many foreign policy gurus with whom I have spoken suggest any political capital expended in that regard would be wasted. Dennis Ross, a former Middle East negotiator and senior adviser to President Barack Obama, takes a more nuanced view. “Do I think that the president will bring [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas together? Probably not. [While] the symbolism would be good, they have not met for 7 years — a meeting in which there are no specific outcomes would probably add to the disbelief that both Israelis and Palestinians feel about each other.” He explains that “this president does have leverage with all parties — Israelis, Palestinians and Arabs — and that could be used to get each to take steps to reach out to the other and restore a sense of possibility. But the peace and the ultimate deal are not just around the corner.”
Perhaps, however, Trump at least can clear up the rhetorical mess his advisers made over whether the Western Wall is in Israel and clarify the U.S. position on settlements. An old Middle East hand argues that “incompetence” explains the administration’s change of heart on moving the U.S. Embassy. If, for example, we told Arab allies we were moving the embassy to WEST Jerusalem, which would have no impact on final status (the Knesset, prime minister’s office and Israeli supreme court are all there) they would have little recourse. Nevertheless, Trump’s policy toward Israel (no embassy move, warning Israel on settlements) represents much less of a break with Obama than he supporters kept promising was in store. Perhaps Arab negotiators have already got the better of him and his team. The Middle East hand observes, “Trump was seen as someone who understood Israel and the risks it faces and doesn’t blame it for everything. Now they are in doubt as to what he thinks. So he needs to deliver reassurance.”
So the trip is not meaningless. “Fairly or not, [Middle East allies] collectively believed that Obama saw Iran as part of the solution to the problems in the region and not the source of the problems and threats they faced in the region,” says Ross. Whatever its faults, the Trump administration does NOT take that view. There might be small items, Ross says, such as “announcements of arms sales, closer military ties, joint economic investments, and a common anti-terror-anti-extremism forum coming out of Saudi Arabia.” But the real importance of the trip — if Trump can avoid controversy, gaffes, missteps or obvious ignorance — is to reiterate that the shared goal now is to prevent the spread of both Shiite extremism (from Iran) and Sunni extremism (the Islamic State). That alone would be worth the visit.