Trump has no qualms changing the script …
It shouldn't be much of a surprise that a politician with a history of inconsistency seemed to backtrack on some of his most inflammatory positions. In Riyadh, Trump spared his mostly-Muslim audience the clash-of-civilizations ire that fueled his campaign. He didn't harp on the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” and he issued a united call to action with the Saudi king at his side.
In Israel, the difficulty of pushing through a lasting peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians seemed to temper the certainty Trump once had that he could engineer a solution. “It’s not easy,” he admitted in Jerusalem. “I've heard it's one of the toughest deals of all, but I have a feeling that we’re going to get there eventually, I hope.”
but that may not mean very much.
In Brussels, Trump returned to his campaign talking points on NATO and free trade, causing visible consternation (and some laughs) among European leaders. He upbraided fellow NATO members for “not paying what they should be paying” and for owing “massive amounts” for previous years of supposed noncompliance.
As I wrote earlier this year, it still doesn't appear Trump understands how NATO works. In 2014, member states committed to spending at least 2 percent of their gross domestic products on defense by 2024. While most of the bloc has failed to reach that target, many are on track — and were so well before Trump started complaining. His grousing suggested, once more, his shallow, transactional view of foreign affairs, and his relative silence about Russia spoke volumes to his European colleagues.
“Values and principles first, this is what we — Europe and America — should be saying,” said Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, in a thinly-veiled criticism of Trump. The visceral awkwardness of Trump's interactions with other NATO leaders seemed to underscore the tension.
Meanwhile, as journalist Mehdi Hasan wrote, Trump's perceived shift on Islam may not be as profound as some claimed it was. In his Riyadh speech, Trump did nothing to backtrack on his earlier demagoguery about a potential Muslim ban, nor did he repudiate the strident anti-Muslim voices inside his administration. “Can 33 minutes really wipe out two years of anti-Muslim lies, smears, insults and conspiracy theories?” Hasan asked.
It's all about the family.
When Trump had his main sit-down with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday, two key figures were not included: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and national security adviser H.R. McMaster. Yet Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, a businessman with no prior foreign policy experience, was in the room. McMaster, who had spoken specifically about Trump's “desire for dignity and self-determination for the Palestinians,” sat outside.
At the Vatican, Trump posed for a strained photo op with Pope Francis. His wife, Melania, and daughter Ivanka were included, while press secretary Sean Spicer, a Catholic, was not — a move that reportedly left Spicer “fuming.”
“Ultimately, the formalities of West Wing titles mean less than family ties or longevity in Trump world,” reported CNN. Indeed, Trump's swing through Saudi Arabia appeared to net Ivanka Trump's proposed Women Entrepreneurs Fund $100 million from Saudi and Emirati benefactors. Foreign governments and businesses all seem to know the best way to endear themselves to the American president.
The trip's biggest winners were the Saudis …
Trump seemed to have the best time amid the decadent surrounds of the Saudi capital. His speech to an assembled gathering of Muslim leaders — urging them to “drive out” the extremists in their midst — received generous applause from some corners of the Arab world and high praise from right-wing supporters at home.
“Never before has an American president tried so clearly to unite the civilized world, including the nations of the Middle East and Africa, against the forces of terrorism,” crowed Trump ally New Gingrich.
In reality, the speech was noteworthy not for its thin appeal to unity but for what it left out. Trump said next to nothing about democracy, human rights or the conditions through which extremism has emerged — conditions, in part, stoked by the repressive politics of governments like Saudi Arabia.
Instead, Trump fully embraced the Saudi view of the Middle East, celebrating the kingdom's “gradual reforms,” declaiming Iran and seemingly siding with an axis of Sunni Arab states, all led by monarchs or autocrats. He said nothing of the ruinous Saudi-led, U.S.-supplied war in Yemen and made no mention of the Saudis' own history of supporting fundamentalist Islam. In return, the Saudis inked an eye-popping $110 billion arms deal.
What are the effects of such a posture? Look no further than neighboring Bahrain, where the government's armed forces this week killed a number of dissidents and arrested dozens more in a deadly crackdown on its opponents.
“The timing of the raid was striking, coming two days after President Trump publicly assured the king of Bahrain that their relationship would be free of the kind of 'strain' that had occurred in the past — an apparent reference to the Obama administration’s periodic chiding of Bahrain over its human rights violations,” wrote my colleague Kareem Fahim.
while the list of potential losers is far greater.
Trump's trip did little to dispel the unease among Europeans about the effect of the Trump presidency on transatlantic ties. Even in Israel, there was concern over the White House's alleged leaking of Israeli intelligence to the Russians, and Trump's posturing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seemed only to highlight the divisions within Netanyahu's ruling coalition.
Pope Francis, perhaps sensing the concerns of leaders elsewhere, handed Trump two politically loaded gifts: His papal encyclical on the perils of climate change and a medallion in the shape of an olive tree — a symbol of peace for an American president eager to talk of war.
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