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Trump is winning friends abroad – while alienating them at home

In 1981, when President Reagan lifted the grain embargo on the Soviet Union, Washington Post columnist George F. Will went on to complain that the Reagan administration ‘loved commerce more than it loathed communism’. Well, yes. American conservatives have, more often than not, put commercial interests before ideological ones. Sometimes the two even coincide.

For all his bluster about the dangers of Islam, Donald Trump seemed to have a dandy time in Saudi Arabia these past few days before he jetted on to Israel. The $110 billion arms deal that he signed with the Saudis, coupled with their promise to invest in Blackstone Group to boost American infrastructure projects, offers the Saudis a way to buy influence in Washington directly.

But it wasn’t Trump himself, so much as his unwontedly ebullient Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who gave the game away. Talking on CNBC, Ross mused about his travels to Riyadh, ‘I think the other thing that was fascinating to me…there was not a single hint of a protestor anywhere there during the whole time we were there, not one guy with a bad placard.’ Hmm. Could it be that the paladins of the Trump administration actually feel an inner affinity for the authoritarian kingdom and would like to implement some of its own draconian practices at home?

While Trump made no overt moves to convert to Islam, it did appear that a kind of conversion experience is taking place. Trump’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson indicates that the president’s thinking on such matters will continue to evolve, though judging from the video footage showing Steve Bannon in a state resembling physical distress, he at least remains immune to the charms of the Saudis.

Always eager to distance himself from the perceived namby-pamby policies of his predecessor, Trump explained that he would follow a ‘principled realism’ and ‘make decisions based on real-world outcomes—not inflexible ideology’. In practice, this seems to be little different to US administration after US administration. They have occasionally made a few throat-clearing noises about the dismal Saudi human rights record but otherwise averted their gaze from any untoward practices taking place in the desert kingdom. One thing that Trump occluded during his stay was the fact that the Saudis are in fact the chief promoters of terrorism, as they disseminate the militant Wahhabi faith into every nook and cranny around the globe.

The main target of Trump’s address was Iran. The Revolutionary Guards continue to stir up trouble around the region, whether it’s Shiite militias in Iraq or Hezbollah in Lebanon, not to mention the Assad regime in Syria. There is, of course, a tacit alliance between Riyadh and Jerusalem over supporting the Sunnis against the prospect of a Shiite crescent in the region. But Trump’s adamantine stand against Tehran will create further ructions with Europe, where the re-election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has created jubilation, starting with EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini: ‘#EU ready to continue work for full JCPOA implantation, bilat engagement, and meet expectations of all people in #Iran,’ she tweeted on Saturday.

As soon as he landed in Israel, however, Trump was back to breathing fire about Iran. ‘Iran must never be allowed to possess a nuclear weapon,’ he announced in Jerusalem. The ‘ultimate deal’, a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, was also in sight, if hazy. Heck, if anyone can pull a deal off, it has to be Trump, right? The tantalising prospect is that precisely because Trump is so ignorant about the region, he can blast past old certitudes and concoct some kind of accommodation between the two sides.

Even as he learns the delights of being feted abroad, however, Trump, to use the term once favoured by George H.W. Bush, remains in ‘deep doo-doo’, much of it created by his own ham-fisted attempts to quash any investigations into his administration’s ties with Moscow. Trumpgate, or whatever ‘gate’ will be affixed to his woes, isn’t going away. As Gideon Rachman politely puts it in the Financial Times, there are now ‘legitimate questions’ about whether the old boy will be ousted from office within a year. For now, however, Trump can enjoy the accolades that he is garnering abroad. If he truly is ousted in a year or so, he can gaze fondly upon the gold medal bestowed upon him by the Saudis that his chum Roger Stone says ‘makes me want to puke’.

Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of The National Interest


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