Last Friday, President Donald Trump departed on an intensively-packed nine-day international trip that he’s reportedly dreading. The past week has obviously been the absolute worst of his brief presidency and perhaps revealed one of the worst series of self-inflicted wounds in the history of the presidency.
So why isn’t he looking for a foreign getaway to change the channel, support the world stage and talk matters of high policy, war and peace with world leaders? One reason, of course, is that if you’re looking for happy times, let alone success, you don’t ordinarily travel to the Middle East. Trump’s first two stops are Saudi Arabia and Israel. Talk about jumping from the frying pan into the fire!
Trump’s trip was always going to be dramatic and full of shenanigans. U.S. allies have been disturbed by his warnings about pulling back from the progression of world unity. He is tasked with urging a united front against terror by appealing to some of the same corners of the Muslim world he has tried to keep out of the United States with his travel ban. Last week, he added new layers of complication by disclosing classified intelligence to a long-time adversary, Dear Russia.
In Saudi Arabia, the president — whose campaign was marked by heated anti-Muslim rhetoric and whose administration has tried to establish a travel ban from several Muslim-majority countries — will deliver a speech to the Islamic world meant to be a clear contrast with the vision Obama laid out in his first trip to the region.
It is virtually impossible to comprehend that Trump, whose first months in office have been dominated by his (disguised) effort to keep Muslims out of the United States, could give a speech anywhere in the Muslim world on Islam and have it be well-received. Trump, after all, once told a known broadcasting network that the Quran teaches “a very negative vibe.”
And yet, strange at it may seem, Trump actually has a Middle East strategy or at least a reasonably coherent approach. And he’s counting on a set of successful meetings with the Saudis, other Arab state leaders, Israelis and Palestinians to demonstrate that it’s working. But Trump should be very careful about claiming quick tactical victories. After all, it is the Middle East. And while the locals don’t want to cross Trump by saying no, that doesn’t mean they’re ready to cooperate, let alone fall into line with what he’s proposing.
When it comes to the peace process, Trump will have to pay to play. He is likely to return from his Middle East trip feeling either frustrated at the magnitude of the task or confident because none of the parties wants to annoy him (yet). There’s probably enough common ground between the U.S., Israel and the Arabs on confronting the threat from transnational jihadi terror and Iran to avoid major fissures in the rudimentary Israel-Arab-U.S. entente. And on the peace process, Trump might—if he pushes—get Netanyahu and Abbas to sit with him (which would be their first public meeting since 2010) and perhaps announce some follow-up measures. But it’s a very long way to the “ultimate deal” from there.
The Middle East is littered with the remains of schemes and dreams of great powers who wrongly believed they could impose their will on small tribes. Perhaps Trump will succeed and cut some “deal” as several of his predecessors managed to do. But I doubt it. Indeed, Trump is likely to discover that the region, like health care, is more complicated than he thought. And like his predecessors, he is almost certain to find that, at best, the Middle East is a problem to be managed—not one to be transformed according to the president’s desires.
On a final side note, it is hard to imagine Trump exercising sufficient self-control to emerge from a nine-day trip overseas without incident. He can barely go 24 hours without incident under normal circumstances. Consequently, the best way to prevent more Trump damage is just for him to stay home.