Trump relying on charisma to bridge old divides on first foreign trip
Donald Trump is embarking on a week of diplomacy and preparation for his first foreign trip as president, aimed at demonstrating that his personal charisma can override longstanding global divisions and conflicts of interest with old allies.
Trump’s personality-driven approach seeks to reassert US preeminence in the world through consolidating bonds with foreign leaders, most notably autocrats, as long as they are aligned with the administration’s priorities of defeating the Islamic State and al-Qaida while containing Iranian influence.
The president’s critics argue, however, that abandoning such values damages longterm US aspirations to global leadership. They warn that Trump’s overweening confidence in his own persuasive powers is simply delusional and will not help resolve intractable global conflicts and the often contradictory aims of his own foreign policy objectives.
Starting on Friday, the president’s world tour is seeking to recast Trump as a world statesman at a time when the legitimacy of his election victory is under greater attack than ever following his dismissal of the FBI director, James Comey, who was overseeing an investigation into the Trump campaign’s links to Russia.
The national security adviser, HR McMaster, was deployed on Friday to highlight the presidential trip during the daily White House briefing, with the press more interested in asking questions about Trump’s tweeted hint he had taped his conversations with Comey.
National security adviser HR McMaster said the president ‘prioritizes building strong relationships’. Photograph: Win McNamee/Getty Images
In describing Trump’s first foreign excursion – which takes in Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Vatican, Brussels and Sicily – McMaster outlined the ethos of the president’s approach to foreign affairs, modelled on the visit last month by the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, to the president’s private club at Mar-a-Lago in Florida.
“The president prioritizes building strong relationships, as you see here, every day with world leaders as a way to strengthen our alliances. And he’s been successful,” McMaster said.
He laid out the agenda for Trump’s trip, which starts with visits to the ancient capitals of Islam, Judaism and Christianity and culminates in Nato and G7 summits at the end of the following week, describing it in almost messianic terms.
“This trip is truly historic. No president has ever visited the homelands and holy sites of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslims faiths all on one trip,” McMaster said. “And what President Trump is seeking is to unite peoples of all faiths around a common vision of peace, progress, and prosperity.
“[T]he President’s leadership has been welcomed – welcomed enthusiastically,” McMaster added. “There was a perception that America had largely disengaged from the Middle East in particular, and that disengagement coincided with this humanitarian and political catastrophe in the region.”
Trump’s week starts today with a meeting in Washington with the Abu Dhabi crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, that is supposed to underline US backing for the United Arab Emirates (UAE). There is deep unease in the state department and the Pentagon about the UAE’s human rights record in its role as part of an Arab coalition against Iran-backed Houthi forces in Yemen. But Trump is not expected to raise those concerns in his meeting with Prince bin Zayed.
“The Trump administration’s single-minded pursuit of military cooperation with the UAE in an unquestioning fashion is legally and politically risky for the United States. UAE-backed forces have allegedly engaged in disappearing Yemenis and abuse of detainees in their custody,” said Ryan Goodman, a Pentagon counsel in the Obama administration, and a law professor at New York University.
Similar misgivings over the civilian death toll caused by the Saudi-led coalition’s aerial bombing campaign in Yemen have also been sidelined, and Obama administration restrictions on arms sales to Saudi Arabia have been swept aside. A week ahead of Trump’s visit, the US was reported by Reuters to be close to completing arms deals with the kingdom worth more than $100bn.
On Tuesday, Trump will meet another regional strongman, the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, with the White House hoping that personal chemistry will assuage a clash over the two countries’ security interests in Syria.
Trump will seek Erdoğan’s acquiescence to the US plan to drive Isis out of its Syrian stronghold in Raqqa, a plan that hinges on arming the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish force that Ankara has long denounced as a terrorist group for its links to the Kurdistan Workers party (PKK) insurgents in Turkey.
Reliance on the YPG to take Raqqa was an Obama administration plan that Trump put on hold while he reviewed other possible options. Turkey argued it could train and deliver sufficient Syrian Arab forces to take and hold Raqqa but they failed to materialise. This is referred to inside the Pentagon as Erdoğan’s “ghost army”.
Voters cast their ballots in the recent referendum on the Turkish presidential system. Trump personally congratulated President Erdoğan on the outcome, which granted him sweeping new powers. Photograph: Markus Schreiber/AP
“The US arming the Kurds is the last thing Turkey wants, but the Turks didn’t come up with another plan. There was no plan B,” said Hassan Hassan, an expert on Isis and Syria at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington. “The Americans have told them this is something we need to do and we need to do it now.”
By way of compensation, the US is expected to offer deeper intelligence cooperation with Ankara against Kurdish militants in Turkey and in Iraq. And Trump has already made clear he will not let Obama-era opposition to Erdoğan’s creeping authoritarianism become a hindrance in the bilateral relationship. He formally congratulatedthe Turkish president on winning a referendum amending the constitution to give him more power.
For their part, the Turks have also focused on cultivating a personal relationship with Trump. A meeting of Turkish and US business leaders starting next Sundayhas been moved to the Trump hotel in Washington.
The consistent message being conveyed in this week’s meetings, and then in the trips to Saudi Arabia and Israel over the weekend, is that US support for its traditional allies is personal and no longer has to be balanced by scruples about human rights or by the pursuit of detente with Iran.
“One of the main comparisons with Obama is that he seemed to be aloof. He didn’t take sides. His temperament was cerebral and over the fray,” said Natan Sachs, the director of the Centre for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
“Trump is the opposite. He is partisan. He is saying he is on their side. He is saying: ‘We are not the UN. We are not Sweden. We are the US and we are your ally.’”