Reflections on the Trump Overseas Tour
My overall impression of Donald Trump’s first excursion overseas as President is the low standard American commentators have set for their President. Further, Trump has surrendered American leadership in the world, although the focus has been on whether his visits to Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Vatican and the G7 were far less damaging than expected. I examine the trip thus far one stop at a time.
The glitz was familiar. Friendships were forged and solidified. The dancing at the ardha ceremony on the part of the Americans was awkward, and that may have been the metaphor for the whole visit. At the same time, a number of issues came into sharper focus.
- Donald’s supreme ignorance concerning terrorism
Though Trump declared that the war against terror was not a war of one civilization against another or one religion against another, but a war against evil, Iran alone was blamed as the heinous source of terrorism, as “the tip of the spear of global terrorism.” To some extent, in the Middle East, the country is a prime source. However, most radical Islamicist terrorism in Europe, in North America and even in the Middle East, is a product of Sunni, not Shiite, background. Wahhabism, rooted in Saudi Arabia, is both a source of proselytizing as well as repression, though both merge together in terrorism in only a small proportion of adherents to this fundamentalism. ISIS in its theology and jurisprudence is far closer to Saudi Arabia than to Iran.
- Donald proved he could be diplomatic
He learned to follow Barack Obama’s lead, a lead at which he once aimed withering criticism, and avoided the phrase “Islamic terrorism.” He also deliberately ignored his anti-Islamic rhetoric in addressing Muslim leaders and conveniently forgot that he had once declared that Muslims hate us.
- Donald’s Respect for Democracy
Saudi Arabia is a dynasty and theocracy, permitting only male descendants of the founder, King Abdulaziz bin Abdulrahman al-Saud, to rule. Further, the Basic Law that dictates a dictatorship is rooted in sharia law; punishment can be severe for apostasy, sorcery and adultery. Trump could have offered indirect criticisms of the Saudi democratic deficit by applauding the honesty of its December 2016 elections and the innovation in allowing women to both vote and run as candidates, while urging moves towards further reform. If he had a deeper sense of diplomacy than he exhibited, this need not have emerged as a scolding, but as encouragement towards judicial independence and due process in opposition to rampant use of arbitrary arrest, particularly targeting human rights activists. However, Donald Trump’s “principled realism” unveiled an absence of any principles.
- Donald’s Ethos
Donald seems to have no sense of human rights – freedom of speech, freedom of assembly – and universal values; he expresses a positive disdain for them in the leaders he admires. He never once brought up the issue of human rights or confronted the repressive government of the Saudis. Instead, a member of his executive, Secretary Wilbur Ross, lauded his visit to Saudi Arabia by noting there were no protesters. “There was not a single hint of a protester anywhere there during the whole time we were there. Not one guy with a bad placard.” When Ross was offered an option to amend or qualify the statement, he abjured and, instead, doubled down on the plaudits he awarded Saudi Arabia without reference to the authoritarian reasons.
(See the U.S. Government Report: https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/253157.pdf)
This State Department Report explicitly notes that, “the [Saudi] government categorically forbids participation in political protests or unauthorized public assemblies.” Two protesters currently sit on death row sentenced to be beheaded.
- Donald’s Economic Interests
While the billions in trade deals (selling billions of dollars in arms to the Saudis whom he once charged with masterminding 9/11) were being celebrated, so was Saudi investments in America – $55 billion in defence, manufacturing and resource companies. Sales and investments also promised to bring more jobs to America. Less apparent was the fact that a close associate of Donald Trump, Hussain Sajwani, whose DAMAC Properties built the Trump International Golf Course Dubai, might be a big beneficiary.
- Saudi Middle East Peace Plan
Though the fifteen-year-old Saudi-led plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians had previously led nowhere, there were hints that the Saudis had modified their approach by offering Israeli recognition as well as trade and investment cooperation if Israel took positive steps towards peace – freezing settlements, releasing prisoners. The increasing surreptitious cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia in trade, security and even diplomacy has, in fact, provided the possibility of making the current period propitious for an advance toward peace, however unlikely that seems to be.
Israel and the Palestinians
At this time, virtually no one with any in-depth knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict expects any breakthrough on the conflict. This is especially true of the Palestinians. Some still believe that Palestinian stubbornness on the “right of return” is a, if not the, major impediment. In fact, there is a deal in the backdrop which allows Israel to ensure its demographic Jewish majority while giving a nod to Palestinian honour. Since there are agreements in place for trading territory and various resolutions are thrown about in dealing with the 80,000 Jewish settlers outside Area C in the West Bank, the problem of Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel versus East Jerusalem serving as a capital of a Palestinian state still seems insurmountable. Could that problem be bracketed and a peace deal agreed upon on the other issues?
- Orthodox Jews were already suspicious when an unknown rabbi purportedly gave permission to Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner landing in Saudi Arabia after the sun had set for the beginning of shabat.
- Donald Trump arrived in Israel against a background in Washington where he let the Russians know that intelligence had come from Israel.
- Former MK Moshe Feiglin, former leader of Zehut, criticized the $110 billion dollar-weapons-deal signed by Donald with Saudi Arabia.
- Netanyahu had to order his ministers to meet Trump at the airport; extreme right wing members recognized that they could not win Trump’s endorsement for a one-state solution based on Israeli victory.
- Netanyahu welcomed Trump to the “united capital of the Jewish state.”
- Donald Trump, whatever the huge range of his ignorance and inadequacies, does have a keen ear for identity politics and an ability to appeal to that side of Palestinian political concerns. In the past, efforts to strike a deal based on Palestinian self interest have failed. Would Donald be able appeal to their identity concerns?
- Recall that in February, Trump suggested that he, and the U.S., were no longer wedded to a two-state solution, even as the State Department reaffirmed that the U.S. still supported a two-state solution. Only a bare majority of Israelis continued to support a two-state solution and the support among Palestinians had dropped to 44%. However, it was not clear whether Trump had dumped the two-state solution or whether he was holding out that possibility if the Palestinians refused to bend and compromise. In his dealings with Israel, he was much clearer that he continued, for the present, to support a two-state solution, but it was also clear that it would not be based on a return to the Green Armistice Line, though Trump disdained the use of a label to characterize the solution without clarification of any content.
- When Donald Trump went to Bethlehem to meet Mahmud Abbas, he was greeted with a banner declaring Trump to be a man of peace: “the city of peace welcomes the man of peace.”
- Donald Trump did urge Palestinians to refrain from inciting violence.
- Trump broke a taboo and flew directly from Riyadh to Tel Aviv.
- Trump broke another taboo and, as U.S. President, visited the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, but without any Israeli politicians.
- He also reinforced Netanyahu’s propensity to demonize Iran as Trump insisted that Iran would never be allowed to make nuclear arms in the same week that a relative moderate, Hassan Rouhani, had just been re-elected as President of Iran.
- On the other hand, Trump did not announce moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem as he had promised.
- Further, Trump asked Netanyahu to “curb” settlement expansion, but did not ask for a freeze on building housing units in existing settlements.
- Instead of building bridges, as Pope Francis favoured, the Pope had criticized Trump’s promise to build a wall on the Mexican border during his campaign.
- Trump in return had called Francis “disgraceful.”
- Pope Francis, a critic of climate change sceptics, openly advocated adopting policies to deal with climate change. (Francis gave Trump a copy of his encyclical on preserving the environment – of course, there is little possibility that Trump will read it).
- Francis is also perhaps the best-known world figure who identifies with giving a helping hand to the poor, with compassion for refugees and, in a Ted talk, he had urged the powerful to put the needs of the people ahead of profits and products.
- Francis and Trump did not end up in fisticuffs, but the half-hour visit appeared to be a downer for the Donald and certainly for Sean Spicer, a Catholic, who never got to meet the Pope; the background of the Manchester terror attack did not help, though Trump is all sentiment when children are killed and riled up when terrorists do the killing.
- The visit to the heartland of globalism was bound to depress the Donald, especially when the UK placed a curb on sharing intelligence with the U.S. since Washington leaks could have compromised the investigation of the Manchester terror attack.
- The release of the CPO discussed yesterday did not help.
- Donald lectured other members of NATO – totally ignoring the progress made towards the 2% of GDP to be dedicated to the military; he claimed other members owed “massive amounts”; “23 of the 28 member nations are still not paying what they should be paying and what they are supposed to be paying.”
- The combination of ignorance and bravado earned some open sniggers from a few European leaders but more frowns.
- Donald did not say that NATO was obsolete or dysfunctional, but neither did he pledge America’s unconditional fealty to NATO as required under Article 5 dealing with collective defence and the requirement that each member come to the defence of another.
- Donald was mostly left to wallow in his depressed isolation.
- At the G7, Trump lost the control he had exhibited in the Middle East and even Rome.
- It is difficult to say whether this was because of events back in Washington – John Brennan’s testimony that there definitely was Russian interference in the election and “possible” collusion because of Trump campaign officials contacts with the Russians, the breaking news of Trump possible obstruction of a criminal probe when he urged his intelligence chiefs to announce that there was no evidence of collusion, and the continuing parade of information that the Trump budget would be disastrous for Trump’s working class white supporters, or whether it was a result of events at the G7, or some combination thereof.
- First, while Trump refused to commit to the Paris Accord on the environment, he bragged that he won two environmental awards. And he did – for soil erosion control and preserving a bird sanctuary on one of his golf courses and for donating park land to New York State. Donald did not add that the first on the golf course complemented his self interest and the second was a way to get a charitable donation for land on which he was refused permission to build a golf course. Further, as one drives on the Taconic State Parkway through Westchester, you are greeted with large signs advertising the approach to Donald J. Trump State Park, but one finds the park is small (436 acres of woods and wetlands) relative to the signs, lacks any amenities – trails, parking, washrooms and picnic areas – and is uncared for (overgrown pathways and buildings deteriorated and covered with graffiti) since Trump never donated the money needed for its maintenance.
- President Xi of China told Trump that the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Accord would be irresponsible.
- Was America’s pledge to commit $2 billion to the Green Climate Fund alive or would Trump issue an executive order this week cancelling the American commitment?
- In turn, European leaders lectured Trump on the fallout for the U.S. withdrawing from the Paris Accord – a wave of international anger that would lead to retribution, declining trade with the U.S. and destroy the last shred of trust in Washington; withdrawal would be treated by the world as “diplomatic malpractice” and characterized as betrayal; Trump had delayed an announcement before he arrived at the G7 and, perhaps, might allow U.S. state interests to take precedence over fulfilling his wild and destructive promises.
- Europeans tried to educate Trump on globalization and trade policy, but there was little indication that they had made a dint in his thinking. However, a private meeting with Justin Trudeau seemed to indicate that Trump would not scrap NAFTA, but would work to iron out wrinkles. On the other hand, the Europeans rejected out of hand his plea for bilateral trade deals instead of multilateral ones.
- The Donald was sabotaged in his effort to deliver French President Emmanuel Macron his traditional macho pull and handshake. Macron, instead of greeting Trump first, let him stand there, as he planted cheek kisses on Angela Merkel, greeted several others and then, having been briefed, subverted Trump’s effort and even pressed his hand harder and longer and would not let Trump pull away.
- When all other leaders are seen chatting informally with one another as they look over an iron fence at the spectacular view, Trump is nowhere in sight. Instead of walking there with the others, he went in a golf cart. When he arrived, he was surrounded by a phalanx of security men and only then joined the group and appeared to dominate the conversation.
- When Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, as host of the conference, addressed his fellow leaders, all leaders had on headphones and listened – except Donald Trump, sitting two seats away, Donald without headphones sat looking vacantly at the table. Perhaps no one can understand Italian as well as he can.
- Trump had been gone too long from living in what he owned and projected his possessive individualism. Was it the requirement of collegiality that made him slip from his vacuous demeanour at the Vatican to his glumness in Taormina, Sicily?
- There was a media dustup over whether he referred to Germany as evil or bad, and, if “bad,” as seems to be the case, did he mean the situation in which Germany finds itself, specifically with respect to refugees, or did he mean German political policies were bad?
- The meetings confirmed what Angela Merkel had come to believe: a) that the U.S. was no longer a reliable ally on which Germany could depend; b) American current policies on trade and climate change were disastrous.
- Trump had gone from dancing with swords in Riyadh to dodging darts at the G7.
The trip overseas marked the U.S. loss of leadership in the Western world and threatened America with negative repercussions because the Europeans had linked action on climate change with trade policy. Trump managed to keep his head above water in this overseas trip as he escaped the domestic closing in on the administration in its fourth month in office, but only by moving America towards disastrous policies that would be economically and politically detrimental to the U.S.
With the help of Alex Zisman