• Donald Trump sets off on his first overseas tour.
• The president will visit Saudi Arabia, Israel and the pope.
• His hosts will welcome Trump for different reasons.
If times were normal, President Donald Trump’s staff would probably have the jitters about the days ahead. The American head of state, inexperienced in foreign policy, has set off on his first overseas tour, and seen diplomatically, is heading into extremely difficult terrain. First, he visits Saudi Arabia, Israel and the West Bank; after that, he travels on to meet with the pope and European allies. A president who doesn’t tread very carefully in these countries, who doesn’t stick strictly to protocol and his talking points, can do a lot of damage. Trump is not well known for caution or for paying attention to diplomatic conventions.
However, times are not normal. Trump is not touring the world as a strong, politically established U.S. president, but, instead, as one who is under duress. He has only been in office for four months and his own Justice Department has appointed a special prosecutor to investigate whether there was illegal collusion between Trump’s election team and the Russian government. As The Washington Post reported on Friday evening, someone working within the president’s immediate circle has, meanwhile, attracted the attention of investigators. Yet, Trump feels himself to be the victim of a “witch hunt;” he recently complained that no politician in the history of the world has ever been treated more unfairly. The fear that he could make foreign policy blunders on his trip due to impromptu comments or erratic behavior are overshadowed by the relief at briefly escaping the toxic climate in Washington.
In addition, Trump can rely on the fact that his discussion partners do not want to increase his misery. Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, succeeded in equally disappointing and annoying the Saudis, Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East. Trump may well have spoken out unpleasantly about Islam and Muslims again and again during his election campaign, but the Saudi royal family sees Trump as an ally in the struggle against its regional rival power, Iran, and will give him a grandiose reception.
The same is true for Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took offense at Obama’s criticism of settlements, and, above all, the nuclear agreement with Iran. He hopes Trump will pursue a policy in the region that is more closely in line with Israel’s interests. In exchange for that, Netanyahu will forgo insisting that Trump honors his campaign promise to relocate the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
The European allies that Trump will first meet at the NATO summit in Brussels and then later at the Group of Seven leading industrial nations’ summit in Italy also have little interest in making the president’s life even more difficult. The Europeans are delighted that Trump has taken back his comment that NATO is “obsolete” and has revised his irritatingly friendly view of Russia. Trump’s secretary of defense, former Gen. James Mattis, unequivocally assured NATO partners that America would continue to stand firmly by their side. Thus, it would be foolish for the Europeans to annoy Trump by not greeting him with all due respect–regardless of whether they consider him an especially competent colleague at the moment.
The American Right Considers the Pope a Popular Target
Pope Francis is Trump’s only discussion partner who does not have to politically consider public sentiment in the United States. In recent months, the pontiff has become a popular target of the populist right media because he repeatedly urges the West to treat refugees humanely.
Some Trump advisers, with chief strategist Stephen Bannon leading the way, hold the opinion that the Christian West finds itself in an existential defensive battle against “Islamic fascism.” Francis does not share this opinion and will likely tell the president this in no uncertain terms as he deems necessary.
In any case, Trump cannot expect any mercy from the opposition at home. The Democrats will try to keep up the pressure, and the willingness of the government to continue leaking new information to the press that is damaging to Trump is strong.
The week after next, James Comey, the FBI director fired by Trump, may testify before Congress. He accuses the president of obstructing the Russia investigation. And even before Trump appeared at his first foreign meeting, a domestic nightmare caught up with him: Friday evening, The New York Times reported that, in a meeting with Russia’s foreign minister, Trump said that Comey’s dismissal provided him with great relief, calling Comey a “nutcase.”