Reluctant traveler Trump takes off on trip fraught with diplomatic dangers
No presidential overseas trip in modern history has been such a high-wire act with such a threadbare safety net as Donald Trump’s tour of the Middle East and Europe.
The president is capable of with an early morning tweet. Abroad, the potential for unforeseen consequences from offhand remarks increases exponentially. There are so many more people to alienate, so many more conflicts to inflame.
Trump arrived in Riyadh weighed down with the baggage of that threatens the legitimacy, maybe the survival, of his presidency. There has been no let-up in daily press revelations, amid alleged links between his campaign aides and Russia and their cover-up, since he left Washington. Thousands of miles away, the president will be all the more powerless to intervene. Comparisons are being made of a trip to Saudi Arabia that , when the Watergate vice was tightening in Washington.
“He is going at a time when everyone is focused on the investigation,” said Charles Kupchan, a senior official in the Obama National Security Council. “There is a clear risk it will be hard for the policy relevance of the trip to get through. I can imagine that many of the press conferences will focus on domestic issues.”
A former official who has been acting as a go-between for the White House and some Arab capitals said: “In Riyadh they think they are going to have these meetings and the US will come with all these worked-out positions. I told them they’re crazy.
“There is no one home to make foreign policy. There is no foreign policy. They are obsessed with the ‘deep state’ they think is out to get them.”
One early controversy that threatened to sour the first days of the trip was averted when the Sudanese leader, Omar al-Bashir, wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court, whose government is listed by the US as a state sponsor of terrorism, withdrew his threat to turn up at the summit of Islamic leaders in Riyadh on Sunday.
The first day in the Saudi capital provided the yearned-for counterweight to the murmur of investigations and grand juries back home, with majesty, medals and mega-deals. There is still plenty of room for awkwardness, however. Trump is due to deliver a speech on Islam to a room full of Muslim leaders, clerics and scholars, having spent much of the first months of his presidency coming to the US. Stephen Miller, one of the architects and promoters of the travel ban, is reported to have written the Riyadh address.
The president is also expected to promote the idea of an “Arab Nato”, a coalition of Sunni states to stand up to Iran and Isis, that has long been a notion on paper.
However, there is nothing theoretical about the $110bn in US arms sales to the president agreed with King Salman on Saturday. It was given explicitly for fighting the “malign Iranian influence and Iranian related threats”.
Trump is so beloved in Riyadh because there is no mistaking whose side he is on in the Saudi-Iran rivalry. His support for the kingdom and for US arms manufacturers is not mitigated by Obama-era agonising over civilian casualties from Saudi bombing in Yemen.
The next stop is Jerusalem on Monday, after what is billed as the first direct flight from Saudi Arabia to Israel. This leg of the journey is also mired in embarrassment before Trump touches down. Trump is about Isis bomb plots to Russian officials when the visited the White House last week. The intelligence is said to have come from Mossad (though some observers believe the real origin was Jordanian intelligence), much to the chagrin of the Israeli security establishment.
A planned spectacle of a presidential speech atop the ancient Jewish fort at Masada has been cancelled at short notice, reportedly because Trump was not allowed to land his helicopter on the ruins and refused to take the cable-car up like everyone else. Also there is unease in Israel at reports the president will only spend 15 minutes at Yad Vashem, an undignified, whistlestop drive-by at the Holocaust memorial.
A radical and potentially explosive plan to announce the has been shelved, out of concern it could be the catalyst for unrest. But Trump’s court remains deeply divided on the issue, and Trump could still change his mind on a whim.
There is also apprehension in Brussels, where the entourage arrives on Wednesday after a few hours in the Vatican to complete the tour of major religions. Nato officials there are reported in Foreign Policy to be scrambling to “Trump proof” meetings with allies, telling heads of state to limit remarks to less than four minutes and to avoid a concluding statement, for fear the US president might not agree.
While in Brussels, Trump will have his first meeting with the new French president, Emmanuel Macron, on Thursday – having for Macron’s defeated far-right rival, Marine Le Pen.
Before he can return to the US, Trump will make a final stop for a G7 summit in Sicily. None of the stops on his tour has a Trump Hotel. For someone who does not like spending nights away from home, in beds he does not own, that is a gruelling nine-day itinerary.
Trump is reported to be dreading the trip and to have inquired unsuccessfully if it could be shortened. He is a reluctant globe-trotter. Given the experience so far of the National Security Council and the state department, he is unlikely to read briefing notes longer than a page.
That would require a drastically concise version of the 100-page briefing binders that NSC staffers normally bring around. Distracted by the Russia investigation, Trump is said to be merely skimming his advance reading.
There were even some reports over the course of the week that senior NSC directors had not been invited along. That was denied by the White House but as of Wednesday at least the newly appointed senior director for Europe and Russia and deputy assistant to the president, Fiona Hill, was not due to accompany Trump.
“If they don’t take NSC directors and senior directors they will live to regret,” said Julianne Smith, who was deputy national security adviser to Vice-president Joe Biden. “When you are dealing with multiple countries, and multiple egos, it’s like three-dimension chess.
“What seems straightforward at the outset can throw up unexpected complications. There is always a crisis.”