The Donald J. Trump Show is going on the road. And it’s not going to be pretty.
Maybe his first overseas adventure will be a diplomatic triumph. But this trip is filled with potential landmines. Even for a younger, fitter, more experienced president this nine-day visit to five nations (six, if you count Palestine) would be a grueling affair. For the 70-year old, exercise-challenged, foreign policy neophyte President Trump, all the warning lights are blinking red.
- This is the president’s first trip outside the country, and it’s huge. Previous presidents have started off with easier trips to work out the kinks. President Barack Obama had a one-day trip to Canada; President George W. Bush’s first trip was a similar visit to Mexico.
- Trump is meeting with hundreds of officials – beginning with an elaborate banquet with 50 Muslim leaders in his first stop in Saudi Arabia and ending with scores of officials at the G-7 Summit in Sicily.
- Trump will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just a week after revelations that he betrayed Israeli intelligence agencies by slipping highly classified information to the Russians in his meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov. This visit alone has more potential traps and pitfalls than Raiders of the Lost Ark.
- Trump has tried to back out of the trip. He reportedly asked his staff if he can cut back the trip to five days. You cannot, they told him.
- Trump was supposed to have spent the last two weeks in tutorials with his staff who would help him understand the complexities of NATO, the European Union, Arab history and politics, and why the Western Wall matters. Most of these have been scrapped due to the mounting scandals swirling around the White House.
- None of the National Security Council regional or functional experts are flying on Air Force One with the president. Those “expected to take part in the delegation during unspecified times”: Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, policy advisor Stephen Miller, US Press Sec Sean Spicer, economic advisor Gary Cohn, Deputy National Security Advisor Dina Powell; Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump will be accompanying President Trump as well.
- Although all his hosts have a vested interest in having his visits be seen as a success, his precarious political situation will undermine his credibility and raise serious questions about whatever promises he makes or plans he unfolds.
- Foreign media will get a chance to ask him probing questions about scandals back home that he does not want to answer, and that will sideline his message on this trip.
- Finally, revelations about the conduct of his campaign and administration won’t end just because he is out of the country. Any breaking news back at home could railroad his whole trip and drive an awkward wedge between Trump and the people he wants to impress.
Yes, other presidents under siege at home have sought refuge abroad. But they all knew much more about global affairs than Trump. President Richard Nixon - sometimes called the “president of the world” ― also went to the Middle East, hoping that a peace breakthrough could forestall impeachment momentum. It did not.
“It’s a huge burden on the American psyche to have a president go abroad when a sword of Damocles is hanging over them at home,” presidential historian Douglas Brinkley told The New York Times, “It turns our president, instead of representing the best of America on the road, into a traveling can of worms.”
World leaders have already learned certain rules for how to manage Trump. No long presentations for a president with a 30-second attention span. “Do not assume he knows the history of the country or its major points of contention,” New York Times journalist Peter Baker writes, “compliment him on his Electoral College victory. Contrast him favorably with President Barack Obama.”
Each stop on the trip brings its own particular perils. But it is his first stop on Saturday in Saudi Arabia is perhaps the most dangerous of all.
In Riyad, Trump will ink an arms deal worth at least $110 billion and perhaps as much as $300 billion. This deal is made possible only by the administration waiving various human rights issues that have blocked parts of this deal in previous administrations. Oh, and Jared Kushner is personally negotiating the terms of the deal with defense contractor Lockheed Martin.
The Saudis have pulled out all the stops and plan a lavish banquet in addition to the buffet of compliments they will feed the president during his two-day visit. The highlight will be a major speech where Trump will unveil his “Arab NATO” proposal. The speech is written by Stephen Miller, the young, hard-line advisor who is loaded with ideology but has no experience whatsoever in the Middle East.
This proposal is one of the key reasons some conservatives still support the Trump presidency. They see him as a useful vehicle for their vision, just as some cling to him in the hopes of repealing affordable health care and slashing tax rates on the wealthy.
In this case, Trump, they hope, will help forge an Israel-Turkey-Sunni alliance against Iran. The speech will attempt to paint Iran as the source of all conflict in the region, lumping the Shia Persian state in with the Sunni Arab extremism of ISIS and Al Qaeda.
This alliance vision may also explain why the White House has not uttered one word about the widespread abuse of human rights in Turkey, by far the most authoritarian of all NATO members. And why Trump stood by as Turkish President Recep Erdoğan directed his personal bodyguards to choke, punch and kick peaceful protesters outside the Turkish Embassy in Washington on Tuesday.
This may all be in the service of a new “Trump Doctrine, based on shoring up traditional allies against Iran,” writes former Bush administration official Michael Doran. Many of the Gulf monarchs love this idea, and hated President Obama’s more balanced approach. But this “doctrine” could drag us deeper into Saudi Arabia’s brutal war in Yemen and undermine the multi-national accord that successfully blocked all of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear bomb.
Some of Trump’s advisors “appear eager for a confrontation,” argue an impressive array of former senior Obama administration officials including: Antony Blinken, Jon Finer, Avril Haines, Philip Gordon, Colin Kahl, Robert Malley, Jeff Prescott, Ben Rhodes and Wendy Sherman. They warn that Members of Congress should not embrace this approach -- nor approve new sanctions legislation that would put enormous new powers in the hands of a president “whose domestic politics may lead him to favor a diversionary foreign crisis.”
So it is not just gaffes, embarrassments, conflicts of interest and foreign officials luring a gullible president into new foreign entanglements that we must fear. It is that the president could by design or ignorance lead America into a new unnecessary war of choice in the Middle East.
Buckle up, it is going to be a bumpy ride.