by Mitchell Plitnick
Donald Trump’s first trip abroad seems to have been a successful one for him. Although controversies continue to rage at home, he seems to be accomplishing what he set out to do, at least in Saudi Arabia and Israel.
The mainstream media has had a good time with some Trump gaffes on this trip (including his wife slapping his hand away and, more importantly, Trump’s foolish confirmation that he divulged classified intelligence given to the US by Israel). But it has generally applauded his speeches and statements. Trump has set the bar so low that all he has to do is let the soberer minds around him write his speeches and no one will pay much attention to the policy implications of words and deeds.
What we actually saw in his brief but notable Middle East appearance should worry us all. The obvious part was the massive arms sale to Saudi Arabia, which included $110 billion in ordnance that Barack Obama had put a hold on. Obama reportedly was concerned about Saudi Arabia’s disregard for civilian casualties in Yemen and was worried that these arms would deepen the embarrassing US complicity in that devastation. Trump has no such concerns.
Trump’s response to the massive re-election victory of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was also noteworthy. He offered no congratulations, not even a statement of satisfaction that conservative forces in Iran had been roundly defeated. Instead, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, used the occasion to rebuke Rouhani.
We also hope that he puts an end to [Iran’s] ballistic missile testing. We also hope that he restores the rights of Iranians to freedom of speech, to freedom of organization, so that Iranians can live the life that they deserve.
Many were quick to comment on the irony of Tillerson making that statement not only in Saudi Arabia but while standing next to a senior minister in the Saudi government. It went very well with Trump’s statement that the US was not going to “lecture” its allies, a very clear message to Trump’s autocratic friends not only in Saudi Arabia but in Egypt, Turkey and elsewhere, that human rights concerns were a thing of the past. The administration’s comments underscore the same double standard that all previous U.S. administrations maintained toward Saudi Arabia. As for Iran, though it is far from an open society, its citizens can at least participate in more-or-less democratic elections and have considerably more personal freedom than Saudi citizens.
The ballistic missiles Tillerson is so concerned about demonstrate a much greater and more dangerous hypocrisy. As Senator Chris Murphy pointed out in an op-ed last weekend, “If we want Iran to end their ballistic missile program (which is primarily designed to confront the Saudi threat), then feeding the arms race between the two nations probably isn’t the best long-term strategy.”
That puts it mildly. Iran and Saudi Arabia are engaged in proxy wars in Syria and Yemen. But unlike our own Cold War past, more direct conflict between the two is far from impossible. When Tehran sees a massive inflow of US arms, it has no choice but to bolster its own defenses.
Murphy, however, makes another very important point by saying that Iran’s ballistic missiles defend against the threat posed by Saudi Arabia. Washington, all too often, characterizes those missiles as a threat to the United States or Israel.
This kind of sobriety in foreign policy was absent from Trump’s Middle Eastern tour. Harkening back to a tactic favored by George W. Bush in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, Trump spoke of the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and Iran in similar terms, implying a connection without explicitly making one. He also lumped together groups like Hamas and Hezbollah with IS and al-Qaeda, failing to see the important differences between nationalist militias that use terrorist tactics and those that simply try to sow chaos.
Trump’s goal has been to reverse the more nuanced view that Obama established in the region and return to a less realistic view of the region that more easily lends itself to “good vs. evil” approaches. Trump’s speech in Saudi Arabia was very clearly crafted for this purpose, and the writer, said to have been Stephen Miller, demonstrated real skill in pulling this off.
Meanwhile in Israel
Much attention was paid to Trump’s visit to Israel, although this was really much more show than anything else. Trump continues to speak of making “the big deal,” but without any substance. Trump continues to press Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on “payments to the families of terrorists” (in reality, these payments are part of the social safety net, made to families to sustain themselves when the main breadwinner is killed or imprisoned). The Palestinian people overwhelmingly support Abbas on this point.
Israel passed a series of measures ahead of Trump’s visit to help the West Bank economy. The far right in Israel’s government opposed the measures, but without the usual kicking and screaming. This is hardly surprising, as the measures will have minimal effect on the Palestinian economy. They were a dramatic gesture to Trump, but there’s no substance here either.
What does all this amount to? That Trump’s mission to the Middle East was accomplished, at least in his own terms.
Trump’s impulsiveness showed up once, when he stopped journalists from leaving a press conference that had just ended to tell them that he never mentioned the name “Israel” to the Russians. He thereby confirmed sharing intelligence with the Russians: he just didn’t tell them the source (something no one ever said he did). It was a perfect image of why Trump’s temperament is so poorly suited to this job. There was no need for him to do anything but leave the room, and instead he revived an issue that made his host, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, decidedly uncomfortable.
Staying on Message
Overall, Trump took a break from the endless cascade of scandal that he has brought on himself since even before Election Day. He stuck mostly to his scripts for his talks in both Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Most importantly, Trump demonstrated that, with the enthusiastic support of key partners in the region, he was going to re-orient the US position on Iran to one of much greater belligerence. We’ve already seen a few examples of direct US involvement in the regional conflicts, although these were clearly one-off operations and not, at least to this point, part of a broader strategy of increased intervention.
Trump is attempting to shift the dynamic. Although he seems to realize that he can’t simply “tear up” the agreement with Iran on its nuclear program, he now wants to bury the agreement under increased conflict. With a new and very dangerous anti-Iran bill currently making its way smoothly through the Senate, combined with the new arms deal with the Saudis, the United States has embarked on a policy that is very likely to greatly increase the fighting and instability that attend the escalating tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
In both the broader regional conflict and the Israeli-Palestinian one, Trump is determined to strengthen one side to such an extent that the other will be forced to settle on very unfavorable terms. This thinking has been tried before, and it’s always failed, with the people of the Middle East paying the price. With Trump in charge, there seems to be little doubt that this will happen again.
Official White House photo by Andrea Hanks.