Paul Pillar

Trump's Trip and Taking Sides in the Middle East

Relationship to American political and social values?  An irony of Mr. Trump’s trip, given its focus, is that he is leaving Washington on the same day that Iranian citizens are electing a president.  A choice is being freely made at the voting booth, between candidates with different policies and orientations, and the outcome of the election will matter.  Despite all the shortcomings of democracy in Iran, there is far more of it there than one finds in the Gulf Arab states, and especially in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Trump has useful business to conduct in Saudi Arabia, but there was no good reason to give that country the honor of being the first foreign soil on which a new U.S. president would step.  For decades, the first foreign trip by each new U.S. president has been to one of the immediate neighbors, Canada or Mexico.  With this president, the latter country probably didn’t have much of a chance since being labeled as a nation of rapists and drug dealers.  And in Canada, there would be the uncomfortable issue of immigrants fleeing illegally across the border from the Trump-led United States.  But even other traditional Western allies that share liberal democratic values did not get the honor of the first visit (although Trump’s trip will later take in a meeting of NATO—the real one).

Despite Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric and travel policies, he can expect a warm welcome from Saudi officialdom.  That won’t be because of any sharing of American values.  It will be for all the wrong reasons.  Trump’s liking for authoritarians and the family-based methods of his own rule are very familiar and comfortable concepts for the al Saud.  Trump’s disinclination to pester any foreign regimes about violations of human rights assures the Saudis that he will not get on their case regarding that subject.  The president with all the anti-Muslim rhetoric need not fear demonstrations from ordinary Saudi citizens who view him less favorably than the regime does, because there is no First Amendment in the kingdom and such popular demonstrations are not permitted in Saudi Arabia.  Most of all, the regime likes Trump because he so willingly and unreservedly takes its side in its local rivalry with Iran.

The idea of America First thus gets totally lost amid the contests for influence around the Persian Gulf, with not America’s interests but rather the rivalries and ambitions of other states driving U.S. policies.  The concept already was lost regarding the reflexive side-taking on another local conflict involving Trump’s next stop on this trip, Israel.

The president’s itinerary was said to have been conceived with a religious theme, in which each of his first three stops would be associated with each of the three great monotheistic religions: Islam, Judaism, and—with a visit to the Vatican—Christianity.  The basic idea was nice, but the local differences and rivalries still intrude, and the itinerary will be seen by many as evidence of insensitivity toward those differences.  Despite Saudi Arabia’s status as the locale of Islam’s holy places in Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia is not to be equated with Islam.  Even most Sunnis do not identify with Saudi Wahhabism, and the lack of identity and even antagonism is all the greater with Shia.  The Israel stop on the trip bumps into the fact of Jerusalem having special significance for all three religions, which is why it has long been seen as an especially difficult issue in any final status negotiations determining the fate of the Palestinians. This fact underlies what already have been difficulties in arranging the details of a scheduled visit by Trump to the Western Wall.

As for the Christianity stop, one can only wonder what thoughts there are in the Vatican right now about the news that for a new ambassador to the Holy See, Trump has reached into that bastion of Catholic values: the Newt Gingrich household—where the prospective ambassador, Callista Gingrich, was mistress number two before becoming wife number three.