Trump’s Middle East Trip Is Full of Traps
The stakes could not be higher for the president's first trip abroad. And he'll need to be careful and disciplined.
As President Donald Trump heads to the Middle East and Europe today on his first international trip, the stakes could not be higher. The White House is under siege with one explosive revelation after another. Trump’s primary mission will be to reassure America’s allies and friends that despite the whirlwind at home, Washington remains capable of executing a coherent and reasonable foreign policy. This may not seem like a high bar, but presidential trips are massive and complicated operations in the best of times. It will be no easy feat to execute this trip without a major mistake.
Here are the key traps the president will have to avoid:
Don’t screw up the staging: Nine days and five countries make this first trip is a massive logistical challenge — even if Trump does not make a (logical but unannounced) visit to Iraq. Previous presidents have usually started with a test run to Canada or Mexico. The stakes are even higher with the president starting in Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Vatican — teeing up religious and political symbolism that could work to his advantage or massively blow up in his face. Imagine, for example, a Trump tirade on Comey, Russia, and the media in front of the Western Wall. Or an off-the-cuff remark during his foreign-policy speech about Islam. Like he often does with tweets at home, Trump could set off an earthquake not just in the United States but across the globe.
Trump’s team also has zero experience in executing these types of trips. Some cracks are already starting to show. In Israel for example, the press is reporting that Trump’s team has insisted that he spend only 15 minutes at Yad Vashem — Israel’s national Holocaust memorial and museum. Can one imagine a more offensive and insensitive request? That would be roughly one-twentieth the length of a round of golf, and Trump seems to be making plenty of time for that. It’s also not clear they have thought through the first visit by a sitting American president to the Western Wall, which will also be hugely complicated. Trump administration officials have already had to reiterate that American policy remains for the disposition of Jerusalem — including the Western Wall — to be the subject of a negotiated agreement between the parties. But such language infuriates Israelis, who view the Western Wall as part of Israel. That is why previous American presidents have not visited. Nothing positive will come from inserting the American President into this debate.
Don’t give away the house: Another challenge the president will have is to be disciplined and steeped in the details of policy — so as not to give away American interests with little in return. Despite the president’s “America First” emphasis in foreign policy, he is more likely to give away American leverage and compromise U.S. interests than any of his recent predecessors precisely because he doesn’t do details. Trump is the authority in the room on this trip and thus where his real foreign policymaking begins. Up until now, his meetings with foreign leaders in Washington have been mostly initial get-to-know-you sessions that set an agenda for follow-up work by senior staff. Now the stakes are higher. Each partner will be seeking something that may or may not advance overall U.S. interests. The president needs a nuanced understanding of key policy questions so he can move forward with good ideas but also avoid over-promising or boxing the United States in.
Just think about Iran, which will be a central issue in Saudi Arabia and Israel. Our Gulf allies and Israel view Iran as an existential threat and have long pushed for a more aggressive American policy. This administration agrees with that general mentality and will work with our partners to push back on Iran’s support for various proxy groups in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria. But it is one thing to listen to your allies, respect their views, and pursue a policy that works with your own interests as well as theirs. It is another thing entirely to overcommit and pursue a policy that is not in America’s interest because it sounds good at the time when your partner makes the ask. The danger with Trump’s Iran policy is that he will hear from Gulf partners (especially Saudi Arabia) some bright ideas for pushing back against Iran in places and ways that make sense to them — but might not be wise for U.S. interests or other equities in the region. Trump’s team on this trip will need to help him distinguish between what makes sense from an American perspective and what does not — before he says yes to various requests from his generous hosts.
Helping our Gulf partners counter Iran in Yemen by providing them more intelligence, precision munitions, and interdicting Iranian ships might make sense. But getting Americans more directly engaged on the ground against the Iranian-backed Houthi forces does not. Using our troop commitments and political investment in Iraq to encourage Baghdad to move away from Tehran makes sense. But escalating in Iraq in a way that results in Shiite militias turning against our forces or revives sectarian civil conflict does not. Sending a firmer signal to Iran about the types of behavior we will not tolerate makes sense. Blowing Iranian ships out of the water and risking a wider escalation does not. Trump will have to be disciplined in what he promises.
Don’t lose your balance: In international relations as in physics, every action has a reaction. Trump needs to balance very complicated dynamics over which he has shown little understanding or interest. As Trump ventures to Saudi Arabia first, for example, the idea of an Arab NATO and a $110 billion arms deal will sound smashing. Trump may envision that Arab forces will come together in a great alliance and fend off terrorists with powerful weapons from America. But the politics of any Arab force is complicated by everything from disparate capabilities to mutual suspicions across the Gulf Cooperation Council.
An even bigger challenge is how such a build-up would be viewed in Israel. The United States consistently constrains its military sales to the Gulf to ensure that Israel maintains a so-called Qualitative Military Edge in the region. This is not just policy, it is law passed by Congress. Trump may march out of Riyadh victorious — only to find angry and resistant Israelis who will oppose these initiatives and demand new support. Back at home, Congress may could block many of these sales, leaving the president with another embarrassing policy failure.
But Trump’s most challenging balancing act will be between Israelis and Palestinians. He must reassure Israelis and demonstrate his deep commitment to their security — especially in the wake of revelations that he shared sensitive Israeli intelligence with Russia. However, he must do this without alienating Palestinians if he wishes to move forward on a diplomatic initiative with the two sides. Even the most disciplined president would struggle to strike this balance. Trump seems to be failing at this mission: the Israeli right, which in November celebrated Trump’s elections, is already turning against him over the sense that plans to move the American embassy to Jerusalem have been shelved. Indeed, recent Israeli polls have seen a major drop in Trump’s popularity.
Ultimately, the bar for a successful trip will be relatively low and could be achieved with a few good photos, staying on script, and laying off Twitter. After all, the countries he is visiting have a vested interest in portraying the visit as successful. But avoiding public missteps is not exactly this president’s strong suit.
Photo credit: WIN MCNAMEE/Getty Images
Ilan Goldenberg is a senior fellow and director of the Middle East Security program at the Center for a New American Security. Previously, he served as chief of staff to the special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, supporting Secretary of State John Kerry’s initiative to conduct peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. From 2012 to 2013, he served as a senior professional staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. From 2009 to 2012, he was first a special advisor on the Middle East and then Iran team chief in the office of the undersecretary of defense for policy.