President Donald Trump is finally preparing to leave the country, and his choice of stops for the upcoming tour tells us much about what drives this presidency. Trump will visit Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Vatican before moving on to summit meetings of NATO and the G7.
Presidential travel is always important. It is also politically risky and potentially distressing. Above all, it is symbolically powerful. And no trip carries more emblematic weight than the first one in a new presidency. With that in mind, the White House has loaded up this selective world tour with symbolism, along with careful attention to Trump’s emotional and political well-being, and a full dose of serious business.
Trump is not a big fan of foreign travel. In fact, he always prefers to sleep in his own bed. While he makes frequent trips to his Mar-a-Lago resort-home in Florida, he has completely avoided leaving the country until now. But staying in the US is not an option.
By this time in his administration, President Obama had already visited nine countries. In contrast, Trump has sent top aides flying around the world for key meetings on urgent global crises.
For a man who clearly relishes interaction with admirers, going to the Middle East is a bit like holding a campaign rally in a red state. If there is one part of the world where Trump’s election was greeted with optimism — there aren’t many — it is precisely in the region where President Obama’s foreign policy was most harshly criticized.
They won’t quite greet him wearing MAGA hats in the Saudi capital, but he’s sure to get a genuinely warm reception. The same is true in Israel, where many, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, could not have been happier to see the end of the Obama presidency.
The visit to the Vatican has a clever symbolic place in this selective world tour. Israel, the Vatican and Saudi Arabia are the seats of the three monotheistic religions. I would venture a guess that presidential strategist Steve Bannon authored this idea. He’s the man whose world view places America in a sharply delineated Judeo-Christian world.
During my own travels in the Persian Gulf (known by Arabs as the Arabian Gulf) I found wide ranging expressions of hope that Trump will be a good president, undoing some of the Obama policies that were found most objectionable. That was particularly true with regard to Iran, a country many there view as a dangerous hostile power.
It may seem counter-intuitive that the US president who tried to stop people from several Muslim countries from entering the United States, a man many see as Islamophobic, has found his strongest support outside the country precisely in the birthplace of Islam. But that, in fact, is the case. Arab leaders are happy to see the end of America’s push to improve relations with Iran, and they don’t mind that Washington has decided to stop making a fuss over human rights and democracy.
The stops in Israel and Saudi Arabia will feed Trump’s appetite for approval. But they will do more than that. They will please his base at home and will strengthen his hand as he seeks to score a historic victory he says we wants, helping to broker a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians.
The very fact that Trump will visit Israel on his first trip carries symbolic value. Israelis and many of the Jewish State’s supporters in the US had trouble forgiving Obama for failing to visit the country during his first term. Obama came within short distances of Israel, visiting nearby Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia in the first months of his administration, but pointedly did not go to Israel. When he finally came in 2013, the visit was a huge success, earning him a lot of good will.
Trump is already amassing good will, which is hard currency he can use as he seeks a peace agreement. The president, who recently said finding a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, is “frankly, not as difficult as people have thought over the years,” is in for a rude awakening. Many who obviously understood the problem much better than this hyperconfident president have tried and failed over many decades.
The prospects for a Trump-brokered deal between Israelis and Palestinians are as grim as they were for his predecessors. And yet, there are some openings for gradual regional reconciliation. Israel and Gulf states share the same perspective on Iran, and a number of other changes in the region create intriguing possibilities.
The Vatican portion of the trip is likely to be less of an ego massage for the president. While Trump is unlikely to face big protests in Israel, and is completely assured to face none in Saudi Arabia, protests in Rome are likely. And while the Saudi royals and Israeli officials are unlikely to speak harshly to the president, Pope Francis is sure to reiterate his criticism.
The pope has spoken out critically against Trump’s plans and has urged the president to abide by America’s “commitment to the advancement of human dignity and freedom worldwide,” something the Trump administration has decided to downplay in its foreign policy.
In addition to his tour of Judeo-Christian capitals, Trump’s itinerary includes stops his staff did not choose. He will go to Brussels for a NATO summit and Sicily for a gathering of the G7 group. There, he will face America’s traditional allies, who have found much in Trump’s rhetoric troubling and confusing. It will be an opportunity for the president to reassure the allies that they can still count on America.
There, too, the president will have an opportunity to make political and diplomatic progress. Like the leaders he meets in Israel and Saudi Arabia, his counterparts at those summits will also be eager to hear reassuring words from the president of the United States. But they will be much more skeptical than the handpicked audiences in the Middle East.