From Riyadh to Rome, Trump's first trip has shown he's no foreign policy maverick
Donald Trump’s recent visits to the Vatican and Saudi Arabia brought no surprises in their wake, despite what some pundits might have hoped. The elegant and traditional dress adopted by Mrs Trump, and by Ivanka Trump, in the Vatican, almost seemed to sum up the deeply conventional nature of the meeting.
Mrs Trump wore a veil to see the Pope but was bare-headed in Riyadh – was this a very coded signal? If so, most will have missed its significance. But it is a reminder that one reason why Donald Trump was elected President of the United States was, it seemed at the time, because he promised a fresh approach not just to the problem of radical Islamic terrorism, but to Islam itself. Unlike his opponent, and unlike President Obama, he seemed ready to call a spade a spade, and ready as well to take firm action against ISIS. But how much of that was rhetoric? Now that Trump has visited the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, we can perhaps judge just how radically different his Middle Eastern policy is from that of any of his predecessors.
Certain things stand out, but none of them strike one as new.
First, America and the Saudis have signed an arms deal that is worth $110 billion, part of a trade deal worth $400 billion. Absolutely no change there then. The Saudis are allies because the Saudis buy our weapons. And there is not the slightest hint in the Trump speech that we care how they use their weapons.
Second, in addressing the King of Saudi Arabia, and making reference to his “magnificent” Kingdom and “your great people”, Trump gives no indication that Saudi Arabia is a serial violator of the human rights of its subjects. Nowhere in the speech is to be found the slightest breath of criticism. Amidst all the praise heaped on his Arab hosts, the President also seems immune to the terrible irony that many an Islamist terrorist has been financed by Saudi money.
As for the continuing persecution of Christians in the Middle East, Trump had this to say:
For many centuries the Middle East has been home to Christians, Muslims and Jews living side-by-side. We must practice tolerance and respect for each other once again—and make this region a place where every man and woman, no matter their faith or ethnicity, can enjoy a life of dignity and hope.
The irony that these words were uttered in the capital of a country where the practice of the Christian faith is illegal was lost on him, or whoever wrote the speech. As for the Jews of the Middle East, where are they now? Does Trump or his speech writer know any history?
The only harsh words in the speech were aimed at Iran, which was branded as an exporter of terrorism. That same accusation could be made about Saudi Arabia too, but never mind. (It was interesting to see that Iran was blamed for the war in Yemen, not Saudi Arabia.) There is little bravery in denouncing Iran in Saudi Arabia, given that the Saudis see Iran as their chief enemy. Trump’s words about Iran are deeply to be regretted. They do not engage Iran, which is something we need to do, they merely alienate her further. In addition they ignore the truth about Iran, which is that it is far closer to true democracy that Saudi Arabia will perhaps ever be. But Trump prefers to denounce Iran to curry favour with Saudi Arabia, the traditional American policy, and precisely the policy that has brought us to the present unsatisfactory state of affairs.
There was of course plenty that was good in the speech. Trump called upon the Arab governments to drive out the extremists. If only they would. And he made it clear that only they can do this, which is correct, and a useful recognition of reality. From that point of view, it was a good speech. But even with that taken into account, it was very much business as usual. Plenty of carrot, plenty of flattery, but where was the stick? What is Trump going to do when his hosts show us once again that they are either unable or unwilling to drive out the terrorists?
This speech could have been made by any American president of the last few decades. It does not represent a new departure in any way, but business as usual. I wonder what the people who voted for Trump, hoping for a new approach, will make of that.