President Donald Trump is on his first foreign trip since becoming President. In short, the trip has illuminated his glaring lack of foreign policy and diplomatic knowledge. From implying that Israel is not part of the Middle East, to writing “so amazing” in Yad Vashem’s guest book, to taking credit for “uniting the Middle East,” after his speech in Riyadh, Trump continues to prove himself an amateur in foreign relations.
Trump’s trip has been noted as being free of the standard controversies we’ve come to expect in the seemingly long four months of his nascent presidency. This is an illusion.
While Trump spends time shaking hands with leaders in Saudi Arabia and Israel, the investigation into his campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia is picking up speed.
This week, former campaign advisory Carter Page, already admitted to having spoken with Russian officials during the campaign, agreed to testify before the House Intelligence Committee. Page’s testimony is considered crucial to the investigation and the White House will look to play up the president so-called “successes” abroad to distract from this damning development.
Those successes are hollow. Details of foreign trips are established long before Air Force One ever takes off. Donald Trump did not arrive in Riyadh ready to hammer out a $110 billion arms deal, one which will intensify the Saudi offensive in Yemen and exacerbate the horrendous humanitarian crisis there.
The deal was agreed upon long before Trump gave his trademark thumbs-up for the cameras. Trump’s role on this trip is one he’s played many times before: smile for the cameras, shake hands, and cheer on the brand. The only difference now is that the brand he’s promoting is America.
Trump’s speech to the Muslim world was likewise empty and meaningless. Despite his frequent denouncements and offensive claims against Islam in the past, his speech on the subject was muted and clearly self-conscious of the feelings of his Saudi hosts. He did not call on authoritarian regimes in the region to allow for fair and free elections. He did not address the rights of minorities in the Middle East. He even celebrated Saudi Arabia as “empowering women,” despite the fact that women in the kingdom are still prohibited from driving.
Wary not to offend King Salman, Trump made no attempt to bridge the gap between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, instead practically lending support to Saudi oppression of religious minorities. The speech was cowardly and humble, in a way that Trump’s own supporters should take as an insult to everything he promised them during the campaign. He attempted to avoid the term “Islamic extremism,” a common critique of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. When the term accidently slipped, it was blamed on the president’s exhaustion, another criticism of Clinton that Trump frequently used during the campaign.
Trump’s team called the speech one which “unified the Middle East,” as if one speech from a new and inexperienced American president was all the region needed to heal thousands of years of conflict.
Trump’s time in Israel was similarly flawed. At a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump remarked that he had “just got back from the Middle East.” This implies he either does not know where Israel is, or betrays a deeper belief that Israel is different from the rest of the region because its citizens are whiter than their neighbors. Trump never misses a chance to otherize people he does not understand.
While appearing with Netanyahu, Trump claimed to have never mentioned Israeli intelligence reports on ISIS to Russian officials, despite the meeting being well documented and several sources directly contradicting that account. Netanyahu clearly did not believe the President, as evidenced by his obvious eye-roll at the comment.
We will see how the rest of the trip goes. Today, Trump met with Pope Francis and Italian President Sergio Mattarella. He will then head to Brussels to meet with European Union leaders, after repeatedly calling for a weakened EU, and a meeting with NATO, an organization he has criticized as “outdated” and threatened to cease funding, essentially paving the way for further Russian aggression in Europe. He will also meet with newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron, despite overtly supporting his far-right opponent, Marine Le Pen.
Trump’s complete lack of foreign policy experience, coupled with absolutely no desire to learn about the world, has resulted in a trip full of unforced errors. The only reason his team is able to paint it in any sort of positive light is that these mistakes pale in comparison to the growing calls for his impeachment at home. This trip is a farce, a distraction, and will ultimately do little for the United States’ diminishing reputation abroad.