President Donald Trump’s first overseas trip is going well enough, so far. There have been none of the glaringly undiplomatic moments that some feared, some begrudging praise for his speech in Saudi Arabia from the erstwhile Republican foreign policy establishment, and it managed to push all those stories about the Russia thing with Trump and Russia off the front pages and top-of-the-hour reports for a weekend.
No president goes to the Middle East and without provoking some controversy, of course, and Trump was never going to be an exception to that rule. There was some relatively minor quibbling about his swaying along with an all-male sword dance that the Saudis like to do, as well as the usual nitpicking about protocol. Although the left was obliged to praise the First Lady and First Daughter for refusing to cover their hair according to local custom, they also came up with the inevitable past “tweets” by Trump criticizing Democratic visitors for doing the same. The right was mightily pleased that Trump didn’t bow to the Saudi king, as President Barack Obama was accused of doing when he stooped a bit too low to shake hands with the much shorter monarch, but the left delighted in pictures of Trump also leaning a bit to accept a golden medallion from his relatively diminutive host.
There are also the more substantive controversies about more substantive matters, of course. A much-ballyhooed speech to an audience that included several heads of Islamic states managed to avoid the “Islam hates us” and “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on” rhetoric, which was a relief to to his critics on the left but a disappoint to some of his supporters on the right. The speech was quite clear in its opposition to Iran’s regional and global ambitions, which played well on the right and especially well with his Sunni audience, but naturally upset those on the left that had grown accustomed to Obama’s Shiite tilt, and was worrisome to the centrist types who thinks it’s best that America not take either side in the bloody millennia-and-a-half-year-old schism. There was no mention of human rights in the speech, and instead a clear disclaimer that Trump had no intention of telling anyone how to deal with their internal affairs, which these days wins both praise and criticism from certain sections of both sides of the aisle.
The visit also saw the signing of a $110 billion defense deal with the Saudis for some very high-tech weaponry, but that was pretty much the same deal that the Obama administration had negotiated, so no one in either party seemed to have much to say about that. There was also some high-brow discussion about how Trump’s apparent support for authoritarian regimes so long as they suppress terrorism will address the root causes of terrorism, which are thought to include U.S.-backed authoritarian regimes suppressing all sorts of needed reform movements, but in all fairness no one on either the right or left or anywhere in between seems to have figured out what the hell is going on.
Trump’s trip moves on to Israel and the Vatican and Belgium and a G-7 meeting full of wary world leaders before he gets home, so there’s still plenty of potential for something glaringly undiplomatic to happen, but he’s got figure it’s going pretty well so far. If he can keep his thumbs away from a “twitter” machine he might even be able to keep that Russia thing with Trump and Russia on the inside pages and bottom-of-the-hour updates for a whole week, with the inevitable controversies being more easily ignored.
— Bud Norman