The itinerary of President Donald Trump’s first foreign policy trip sends a welcome signal of prudence, strategic clarity, reassurance and resolve. The president will visit Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Vatican before appearing at the NATO summit in Brussels and the G-7 summit in Sicily.
According to administration officials, the trip underscores that the president’s policy to put “America First” embraces America’s vital role as the world’s default power, thwarting radicalism and hegemonic threats in vital geopolitical regions.
By going immediately to Israel from Saudi Arabia, Trump also means to repudiate the fatuous assumptions and failed policies of President Barack Obama.
The President’s choice of Saudi Arabia as the first stop means to dispel the charge that he is hostile to Islam in general rather than Islamist fascism in all its dangerous manifestations. “Tolerance is the cornerstone of peace,” declared Trump as he announced his trip at a White House ceremony. While in Riyadh, Trump will meet with Saudi leaders and moderate Muslim officials from other states in the region to devise a common strategy to prevail against ISIS and address the gathering danger of a revolutionary Iran — the regime Secretary of Defense James Mattis rightly identified as the greatest threat to American interests in the Middle East.
Trump should make clear, however, to Saudi leaders — pleased by his hard line against Iran — his zero tolerance for Saudi regime’s double game of deflecting radicalism at home by funding madrassas to foment Islamist extremism abroad.
By going immediately to Israel from Saudi Arabia, Trump also means to repudiate the fatuous assumptions and failed policies of President Barack Obama, who snubbed Israel on his first trip in the Middle East, where he delivered his infamous Cairo speech in June 2009, blaming the western world, Cold War presidents, and the administration of George W. Bush for “this time of tension ” in the Middle East.
President Obama considered the “arrogance of American power” more dangerous than the threats our illiberal adversaries posed to the interests of the U.S. and its allies. He sought to put distance between the U.S. and its traditional democratic friends, particularly Israel, while engaging America’s repressive, aggressive foes — particularly Iran.
President Obama antagonized not only Israel but also Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the Gulf states by treating Iran as potential strategic partner and negotiating an unenforceable nuclear deal enabling Iran’s nuclear and regional ambitions.
In contrast to his assiduous efforts to conciliate the Iranian mullahs, Putin, and other rogue anti-American dictators, Obama despised Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for telling the world what it needed to hear but did not want to know about the dynamics of revolutionary Iran or a Palestinian entity still committed implacably to Israel’s eradication.
Obama culminated his immoral and unwise campaign to pressure Israel into accepting a suicide peace by refusing in December 2016 to exercise the U.S when the U.N. Security Council passed yet another set of resolutions calling for a halt to Israeli construction on the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Even some liberal Democrats denounced Obama for this unprecedented and dangerous betrayal.
Trump’s visit to Israel — building on the strong relationship he has already forged with Prime Minister Netanyahu — will reverse the dangerous impression arising from Obama’s weakness and confusion that the U.S. would no longer stand by its friends or even acknowledge, much less deter, its prime enemies. The president and his officials have wisely lowered, too, the extravagant expectations Obama and his hapless Secretary of State, John Kerry, raised about the capacity of the U.S. to broker a peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Although President Trump has vowed to “try,” he acknowledges that it may not succeed until the Palestinians accept categorically a two-state solution preserving Israel as a Jewish state with defensible borders. Instead, the President will focus more constructively on enlisting Israel and anti-Islamist Arab regimes to cooperate in their shared imperative, and ours, to prevent Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold, spreading radicalism throughout the region through its venomous surrogates in Lebanon, Gaza and Syria.
The culmination of President Trumps's trip — attending the NATO and G-7 summits — builds on the foundation Trump has already established to restore American power and credibility, which the Obama administration's dangerous doctrine had imperiled. In contrast to Obama, Trump understands that the greatest perils to the U.S. arise from the perception of American weakness, not strength. President Trump has affirmed the importance of American alliances, including NATO, the Mutual Defense Treaty with Japan, and U.S. defense pacts with South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand.
He has staunchly backed America's democratic Asian allies in the raging controversy over North Korea's increasing truculence and its nuclear program. He has initiated the major military buildup to restore a generous margin of American military preponderance. His infatuation with Putin ceased after the murderous Syrian dictator — Putin's surrogate — slaughtered his own people again with chemical weapons. In contrast to Obama who flinched, Trump responded decisively to that outrage the Russians enabled. Trump has assembled a superb national security team. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster; and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley rival any national security team in their aptitude, fortitude and foresight.
President Trump's first trip abroad bodes well for American national security so long as he follows it up with an even more important trip to Asia. Although the Middle East and Europe remain vital, Asia surpasses both as the most important power center in world politics. Deterring an increasingly aggressive, illiberal and expansionist China ranks number-one by far as the most daunting 21st century challenge for the U.S. and its democratic allies. The president should make it a priority to visit a decent democratic pro-American India, Japan, and South Korea. This would convey in no uncertain terms the president's recognition of where America's true strategic and moral priorities lie.
Robert G. Kaufman is a professor at the Pepperdine University School of Public Policy and author of "Dangerous Doctrine: How Obama's Grand Strategy Weakened America."