What Did America Gain from Trump's World Tour?
It’s OK to be used as long as you get something of equal or greater value in return, but transactional Trump got nothing that would advance U.S. priorities on Iran or counterterrorism. Instead, he has lashed the power and reputation of the United States to an autocratic regime’s anti-Iranian, anti-Shia and antidemocratic agenda. The Saudis took the president to the cleaners, largely by selling the narrative that the United States had abandoned its friends in the region and appeased its enemies—and that Iran is the root of all evil in the region. In reality, the Obama administration earned the wrath of the Saudis because it wouldn’t depose Assad for them, wouldn’t stop berating Arab autocrats for their awful human-rights abuses and wouldn’t abandon its efforts to denuclearize Iran to avoid another potentially devastating war in the region—in short, because the former president put American interests ahead of Saudi interests and dared to defend, however meekly at times, American values.
Indeed, what Trump demonstrated in kowtowing to Saudi Arabia was not strength but weakness. And by dancing (with or without swords) to the Saudi tune, he risks dragging this country into more quagmires like Yemen and inflaming sectarian conflict throughout the region, as well as the Saudi-Iranian grudge match for regional domination. So much for an America-first policy.
3. The Peace Process: Is There a There There?
Certainly not yet. That Trump is looking to the seemingly intractable Arab-Israeli conflict for some kind of diplomatic breakthrough is an ironic testament to how desperate his situation has become. There are, to be sure, new elements in the peace-process mix—a new and unpredictable president who’s clearly gotten the attention of the Arabs and Israel by toughening U.S. positions on Iran and by claiming to want to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as a growing alignment between Israel and the Sunni Arabs, particularly in response to a rising Iran.
What is uncertain, and frankly dubious, is whether any of this is sufficient to overcome the obstacles that have prevented a breakthrough in the conflict these many years. One obstacle in particular comes to mind: the inability and unwillingness of Netanyahu and Abbas to make the decisions on core issues, such as Jerusalem, borders and security, that would allow a would-be mediator to bridge the gaps. Trump keeps talking about the “ultimate deal,” by which he means a final peace agreement. But there’s not a shred of empirical evidence (yet) that either Israel or the Palestinians are willing to do this.
What can be imagined is some kind of interim process in which Israelis and Palestinians take a series of mutually reciprocal and sequenced confidence-building measures—and, as they do, the Gulf states would reach out to Israel with gestures of their own, including overflights and expansion of telecommunication links. But even this is a stretch. Because even if the process starts, it’s unclear where it leads. Israeli and Palestinian conceptions of how to end the conflict are wildly divergent, and Trump has refused so far to endorse the basic premise of a two-state solution. Based on what we see now, never has a U.S. president expressed more confidence in a conflict-ending agreement with so little seeming prospect of achieving one.
4. Did Trump Reassure European Allies?
Hardly. While in Europe, Trump acted like a bull who had brought his own china to the shop. Our European allies were aghast that Trump refused to reaffirm America’s security commitment to its NATO allies, and instead treated NATO heads of state to another Trumpian tongue-lashing on their inadequate defense spending. This myopic view, as many analysts have pointed out, is wrong on many levels.
The larger problem is that Trump approaches the transatlantic alliance and America’s responsibility to preserve peace, security and prosperity in Europe as another real-estate deal—and appears to believe that the United States is doing Europe a favor by defending it.
Our European allies are not building contractors or plumbers that he can stiff or bully and browbeat into submission, especially by a president who has given America two black eyes in Europe and is weak and unpopular at home; they are sovereign governments that have to deal with their own domestic publics and parliaments who do not write the kind of blank checks to their militaries that the United States signs for its own. America defends Europe, not out of charity, as Trump seems to believe, but because it is vital to American security to prevent a hostile country from establishing its hegemony over the region. And it is equally important to have partners that are prepared, as NATO and the EU have demonstrated over the years, to tackle global challenges in cooperation with the United States.
Trump is right that our European allies need to take greater responsibility for their own security, and his rant on their defense spending might pry more pocketbooks loose. But it’s much more important that the allies spend more wisely and effectively on defense—and Trump’s heavy-handed approach has done much to undermine mutual trust and solidarity that is essential to the alliance’s unity and effectiveness. Just ask German chancellor Angela Merkel, who, after listening to Trump’s positions on NATO, Russia, trade and climate change, said over the weekend that Europe must take its fate into its own hands.
5. Is America Back?