Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Donald Trump's Trip to the Middle East: Bold Policy Initiatives, Diplomatic Theater or Family Business?

Trump and Saudi King Salam at GCC Summit, Riyadh, May 21st, 2017
Having returned from his first trip abroad, what exactly did Donald Trump accomplish on his visit to the Middle East?  Can we expect new policy initiatives?  Or was Trump’s trip more about image than substance?  In an area that has not received as much attention, what role did the trip play in promoting Trump Inc., namely the president and his immediate family's business interests?

Map of Trump trip to ME & Europe
Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia and Israel, followed by a visit to the Vatican, was, on its face, a smart diplomatic move.  Visiting the most holy sites of all 3 Abrahamic faiths sent a message that each one is important to the US.  Further, Trump’s speech in Saudi Arabia, in which he referred to Islam as one of the world’s great religions, avoided the offensive comments on Islam which characterized his presidential campaign.

Trump’s call for Muslim majority countries to fight extremism delivered an important message, especially in Saudi Arabia.  The Saudi monarchy has been guilty of using its extensive oil wealth to promote extremism throughout the world, by exporting its Wahhabi ideology which fosters hatred of Christians, Shi’a, Jews, and Sufis, and the oppression of women. 

In a May 27th tweet, Trump boasted that he was “Bringing hundreds of billions of dollars back to the U.S.A. from the Middle East - which will mean JOBS, JOBS, JOBS!”  After 2 days in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, Trump predicted that, “many, many things that can happen [in the Middle East] now that would never been able to happen before.”  

During his trip, Trump also noted, "We have before us a rare opportunity to bring security and stability and peace to this region and to its people." (http://www.politico.com/story/2017/05/22/trump-begins-israeli-visit-with-levity-238662).  On the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, Trump noted that the crisis is “not as difficult as people have thought over the years.” 

So what exactly was accomplished?  Clearly, US companies benefitted from a large number of arms sales and military infrastructure projects in Saudi Arabia.  Deals signed with General Electric and Lockheed Martin were part of a larger package of contracts with American corporations amounting to an estimated $110 billion.  The White House indicated that the new contracts would provide Saudi Arabia with fighter jets, radar, and anti-missile defense systems.

Whether Saudi Arabia, the 5th largest arms purchaser in the world, needs to upgrade its defense capability to the tune of $110 billion is doubtful.  Many see Saudi purchases as a way of bribing the US to support it in its regional Cold War with Iran and increasing its influence in Washington.  
King Salman awarding Trump the Collar of Abdulaziz Al Saud
Awarding Trump the kingdom’s highest order, the Collar of Abdulaziz Al Saud, during the trip was bizarre given his June 2016 Facebook comments that Saudi Arabia wants “women as slaves and to kill gays,”  (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/05/19/trump-once-denounced-saudi-arabia-as-extremist-now-hes-heading-there-to-promote-moderate-islam/?utm_term=.e4483739906f), and criticism of the Clinton Foundation for accepting money “from such countries" (http://time.com/4785714/donald-trump-saudi-arabia/).

One of the more innovative and less reported results of the trip was the discussions between Stephen A. Schwartzman, head of the Blackstone Group who was appointed chair of the White House Strategic and Policy Forum, and the Saudi deputy crown Prince, Muhammad bin Salman, head of the Saudi Public Investment Fund.  Although Schwarzman’s contacts with Saudi Arabia began 13 months ago, they are just bearing fruit now.

The Saudis have promised to invest $20 billion in US infrastructure projects, including roads, ports, and bridges.  This investment could be a boon to the US economy, even if some have raised questions about foreign governments profiting from public projects.  Private equity infrastructure investment is a growing sector of the global economy (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/20/business/dealbook/saudi-arabia-to-invest-20-billion-in-infrastructure-mostly-in-us.html)

Saudi investment in US infrastructure projects can potentially help upgrade a wide variety of aging bridges, airports, roads and pipelines (and hopefully rail lines as well).  The ability of Saudi Arabia to diversify its economy is also in the US’ national interest. 

First, diversification places the Saudi economy on a stronger footing  by reducing dependence on oil.  Second, it encourages the growth of the private sector, opening up economic opportunity to large numbers of Saudis beyond the royal family.  Third, it reduces the inefficiency of the public sector where Saudis have enjoyed jobs requiring few hours of work and little expertise.  Now that has all changed as state employees are required to work more hours and develop meaningful skills.

Diversification also suggests important social change. Women’s position in Saudi society has been and will continue to improve.  As the economy moves from total reliance on a top heavy capital intensive oil sector – one which offers limited jobs - to a more labor intensive private sector, women will be increasing needed to fill white collar jobs associated with new state and private enterprises.
Wahhabis forces in Saudi society are already finding themselves under stress.  

Ironically, the Saudi oil industry which created strong economic ties to the West, fostered the alliance between ultra-conservative Wahhabi clerics and the monarchy.  Now that more human resources are needed in a diversified economy, the old rules will no longer work and Wahhabi influence can be predicted to decline.

To the extent that Trump’s visit help promotes these trends, it was a success.  A Saudi Arabia which finally engages in serious modernization – meaning human rights for women and opening economic opportunities for youth who are not part of the royal family, just to mention 2 such processes – will become a better society and less prone to promote extremism.

At the same time, Trump’s vigorous criticism of Iran, both before his visit and while he was in the kingdom, thrilled his Saudi hosts.  After the Bush and Obama administrations, they finally have an American president who supports their camp in the Cold War between Saudi Arabia and Iran.  Such unabashed support for the Saudi monarchy will not lead to positive change in the areas of the treatment of political dissidents and the country’s Shi’a minority .

Trump’s unequivocal support for the Saudi monarchy has been criticized by many analysts because it places the US squarely in the camp of Sunni extremists against the Shi’a of Iran.  While no analysts have any illusions about the goals of the Islamic Republic in the larger Middle East, none thinks stability can be achieved in the region by ignoring Iran. (And ironically, US contracts with Iran continue to be signed, the Trump administration'sd rhetoric notwithstanding).

Trump's unabated hostility towards Teheran may please the Saudi monarchy but will be counter-productive in the long term.  US policy offers Saudi Arabia unqualified support for its war in Yemen – a war which is producing disastrous outcomes - based on the dubious assumption that their Houthi adversaries are Iranian proxies. This policy constitutes just one example of the problems a one-sided US approach in the Middle East can create.

Trump and Netanyahu
In Israel, Trump likewise received an enthusiastic welcome, despite the fact that Prime Minister Netanyahu was forced to scold ministers who had threatened not to receive the US president upon his arrival in Tel Aviv.  Soon Trump and Netanyahu were referring to each other on a first name basis.

Despite assurances about solving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, Trump did nothing to pressure Netanyahu to reassert Israel’s support for a two state solution to the crisis or to slow down settlement construction.  While an agreement has eluded US administrations for decades, Trump declared it a task that would be “not as difficult as people have thought over the years.”   Nevertheless, the Trump administration has yet to commit itself to supporting the two-state solution that has been a bedrock of U.S. policy.

The only bump in the road during his visit to Israel was Trump’s failure to raise the issue of his campaign promise to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.  Some in Israel see this as an effort to hold the move in abeyance until Israel agrees to a deal with the Palestinians.

Trump and Abbas in Bethlehem
Trump’s visit with Palestine National Authority President Mahmud Abbas was designed to send a message that the US considers him an equal partner to Israel.  However, not much was accomplished during their 1 hour meeting in Bethlehem.  Further, Trump offered no specifics on what the “deal” he would conclude between Israel and the Palestinians would look like.

Summing up Trump’s Middle East visit from a policy standpoint, it comes up short.  Yes, Trump did reassert strong US support for Saudi Arabia and Israel.  He did suggest that the meeting of Sunni Muslim leaders in Riyadh could become the foundation for an “Arab NATO.” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/josh-rogin/wp/2017/05/17/trump-to-unveil-plans-for-an-arab-nato-in-saudi-arabia/?utm_term=.6b3bae20f48c). But on specifics, the only concrete results were in contracts signed for new business deals between the US and Saudi Arabia (although it has long been known that Trump seeks greater personal commercial ties with Israel where he has sought to build a high rise tower in Tel Aviv for years).

Long on rhetoric and symbols, but devoid of new and substantive policy initiatives, how can Trump’s visit to the Middle East be assessed? An important component to add to the outcome of the trip is the new commercial deals’ impact on the Trump family fortunes.

Trump’s ban on immigrants from Muslim-majority has been a staple of US media reporting since he became president last January.  However, two counties which have been accused of supporting terrorism – Turkey and Saudi Arabia - were not included in the ban.  Trump himself has business interests in several Muslim countries, which include Turkey, Egypt, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Indonesia. (He has 4 companies in Israel but all registered in Delaware).

While Trump seems unable to engage in detailed reviews of domestic or foreign policy, he does seem to have a canny sense of what constitutes a good investment opportunity.  His comment to Belgium’s prime minister that his view of Europe and the EU was formed by his efforts to build golf courses there suggests that he views the world not through the traditional policy-maker’s eyes but rather through the eyes of a business man (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/may/26/donald-trump-complained-belgian-pm-difficulty-golf-resorts-eu).  

Is it a coincidence Trump lauds autocrats in countries – Turkey, Egypt, Qatar, Russia and the Philippines, just to give a few examples – in which Trump enterprises have business interests?  Is Trump really disposed towards authoritarianism or is his world-view really one of a businessman who now occupies the most powerful position in the world?  Are his interests those of the American people or those promoting his family’s business interests, both now and after he leaves office?

Following the effusive praise for the autocratic Saudi monarchy and the right-wing Netanyahu government, which has enables increased settlement construction in the West Bank to appropriate ever more Palestinian land, Trump attended a NATO meeting where he scolded the US’ long-time European allies.  While his call for NATO partners to all meet the 2% threshold in defense spending required by the NATO treaty was reasonable, the tone of his rebuke of our staunchest allies, a rebuke offered in public, constituted an affront to the alliance. 

The contrast between his support for an “Arab NATO,” and his disdain for NATO and refusal to commit the US to Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, where an attack on any one member is considered an attack on all, undermined the organization. Certainly, this meeting was welcomed by Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin leadership.

These considerations are disturbing.  Trump's trip to the Middle East (and Europe) is not reassuirng. It implies that the day-to-day slogging through the details of complex foreign policy issues have and no doubt will continue to receive short-shrift by the president. 

What is further disturbing is the lack of any substance or any long-term vision in Trump’s foreign policy (or the lack of one).  Human rights and autocratic rule are no longer at the core of US foreign policy.  Autocrats who cosy up to Trump have a green light to continue their oppressive rule. However, associating the behavior of authoritarian regimes with support by the US is a policy that will come back to haunt us in the future. 

While the courts have tried to keep Trump's extra-constitutional behavior in check, few Republicans - who control both houses of Congress - have criticized him for the lack of coherence of his foreign policy stances and his support for authoritarian rule.  Only Senators  John McCain and Lindsey Graham have had the courage to stand up to Trump.
Trump, al-Sisi and Salman at opening of Saudi counter-terrorism center 
When the Egypian parliament passed a law in Novermber 2016 outlawing virtually all foreign aid organizations and placing all civil society organizations under state cointrol, McCain and Graham threatened to withhold $1.3 billion in US aid to Egypt.  However, after Trump's meeting with Egyptian autocrat, General And al-Fattah al-Sisi, at the White House, and then again during the Arab summit in Saudi Arabia, al-Sisi decided to sign the bill, assured of no reprisal by the US (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/29/world/middleeast/egypt-sisi-ngo-crackdown-activists.html?rref=collection%2Fsectioncollection%2Fmiddleeast).  

In a world where alliances such as NATO are threatened, where Russia continues to interfere in the internal politics of Western democracies, where terrorism is a major global threat, and global income inequality is rising, along with environmental and economic problems caused by climate change, we need a "hands on" POTUS, rather than one who seems more interested in attacking real or imagined enemies, and engaging in spectacle rather than substantive policy-making.

Who will hold Trump's feet to the fire and force him to take foreign policy seriously?  Who will tell the US president that foreign policy is more than just the sale of material objects, such as "the purchase of lots of beautiful military equipment because nobody makes it like the United States," the theme of Trump's talks with the Amir of Qatar?  Will Trump learn on the job or continue to engage in policy-making "on the fly"?

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