Analysis

Dark Cloud of Controversy Will Overshadow Trump's Middle East Tour

When Richard Nixon came to Israel during Watergate, Golda Meir said he was there, but his thoughts were far away

President Donald Trump walks down the steps of Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, May 17, 2017.
Susan Walsh/AP

Donald Trump is embarking on his first presidential trip abroad, which will include his first-ever visit to Israel, but a dark cloud will be dogging him wherever he goes. The past week – starting with Trump’s shock dismissal of FBI Director James Comey, through reports of the secret intelligence information he conveyed to the Russians, then Comey’s alleged memo about Trump asking him to stifle the investigation of Michael Flynn and culminating in the appointment of Comey’s FBI predecessor Robert Mueller as special counsel – was a watershed event. It may be too early to know how this will all end, but it’s not too early to assert that Trump’s presidency has hit a serious snag.

The American media will certainly give Trump’s visit saturation coverage, round the clock, 24/7, with breaking news and clever commentary, but it will take less interest in the $100 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia or new details about Trump’s plans for Israeli-Palestinian peace and focus instead on Trump’s reactions, gestures and mood swings and how they relate to the storm he left behind at home. Any statement he makes, any speech he gives, any decision he takes, any offers or threats or proposals that come out of his mouth will be scrutinized first and foremost through a filter that examines how they might influence the crisis in Washington and whether said crisis, in fact, is what motivated them in the first place.

Trump wants to move the Embassy to Jerusalem? Sure, he’s looking to make headlines. Trump threatens Iran? He’s going to get us into a war to distract from his problems. Trump presents a daring peace initiative? C’mon. Give me a break. What else can he do?

Trump’s first foray into the complex world of foreign trips as president, which often requires tact, stamina and discipline, was going to be difficult for him in any case. He knows that, which is why he was getting increasingly edgy as the countdown to his takeoff neared, even before Mueller was appointed. But Trump's rapidly deteriorating political situation back home is going to make it ten times harder for him or anyone else to concentrate on the business at hand. Contrary to what many people – especially in Israel – may have hoped, Trump won’t be coming to the Middle East as a conquering hero who will reverse the supposedly bad eight years of Barack Obama. He will be much more vulnerable than anyone could have expected 120 days ago, when he took his oath of office. Salvation, it seems, will have to wait.

This is another area in which one can learn from the Watergate affair, which is enjoying a spectacular comeback in recent days. From the moment Watergate started to capture national attention following President Richard Nixon’s overwhelming victory in the 1972 elections, his actions and reactions became suspect, and the suspicion only grew stronger over time. Even the dangerous nuclear standoff between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in October 1973, at the end of the Yom Kippur War, was viewed by many as a “wag the dog” situation in which Nixon, presumably, was risking apocalypse to take people’s minds off what journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were uncovering.

The same was said about Nixon’s monumental tour of the Middle East in June 1974, two months before his resignation, but in this case White House aides freely conceded that alongside its legitimate diplomatic objectives, the trip was meant to divert attention from Watergate and to try and make the president feel better. And the Middle East, in fact, gave Nixon a stupendous welcome: A million Egyptians lined the streets of Cairo to greet his motorcade as Anwar Sadat made clear that his pivot away from Moscow was now complete. In Jeddah, the dour King Faisal went out of his way to sing – or at least mumble – Nixon’s praises. Israel also greeted Nixon with gratitude for his approval of the crucial 1973 airlift of U.S. arms to its beleaguered army, though Yitzhak Rabin’s new government was wary – the more things change, etc. – of the peacemaking ambitions of Nixon and Henry Kissinger. Even Hafez Assad was nice enough to Nixon, but only after the president and his delegation had fully recovered from the violent evasive maneuvers carried out by the pilot of Air Force One, who couldn’t tell if the unannounced formation of MiG-21 fighter jets that flew toward him as he started his descent into Damascus were there to greet the presidential aircraft or shoot it down.

In his memoirs, however, Kissinger recounts the tour as a bittersweet experience that left Nixon ambivalent and ultimately depressed. He was encouraged by the outpouring of admiration and support but then demoralized by the contrast with the hostility toward him in Washington. Like Trump – and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well – Nixon was consumed by resentment at what he viewed as unfair treatment. “He was being vouchsafed a glimpse of the Promised Land that he would never be able to enter,” Kissinger wrote.

He then notes the “penetrating comment” made to him by Golda Meir when Nixon’s trip to Israel was over: “We still have never had a visit from an American president,” she said. “Nixon was here but his thoughts were far away.”