As he launches his trip abroad as president, Donald Trump is remaining faithful to the one thing truly consistent in his presidency: breaking with tradition. Flouting a 43-year presidential practice of starting with a goodwill visit with a friendly neighbor, Canada or Mexico, Trump has chosen Saudi Arabia as the launchpad for his “America first” foreign policy.
Trump starting off in Saudi Arabia is a sharp break from President Barack Obama’s approach to the Middle East. The previous president had dubbed the Saudis “so-called allies” for funding Islamic radicalism, which helped fuel the rise of ISIS, and for their human rights record, both domestically and abroad. Obama had also suggested Saudi Arabia learn to share regional power with Iran. The Saudis were outraged. The nuclear deal with Tehran strained U.S.-Saudi relations even further: unconvinced, the Saudis threatened to get a nuke of their own.
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Without having set foot in the kingdom yet, Trump already has much to show for his trip. Saudi Arabia plans to invest $40 billion in American infrastructure, Bloomberg reported on Thursday, which gets the ball rolling on the promised $1 trillion infrastructure spending at the core of Trump’s agenda. Come Friday, a senior White House official confirmed a $100 billion arms deal between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, going a long way to check Iranian power in the region. In total the deal stands at $110 billion, with up to $350 billion over a decade.
The choice of Saudi Arabia is also a stab at changing the narrative on his views of Muslims.
Announcing the trip last week, Trump claimed he would convene a “historic gathering” of “leaders from all across the Muslim world” to meet him. “We will begin to construct a new foundation of cooperation and support with our Muslim allies to combat extremism, and terrorism and violence and to embrace a more just and hopeful future for Muslims in their countries,” he stated.
He will also be meeting with religious leaders. As National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. Herbert R. McMaster pointed out, “No president has ever visited the home lands and the holy sites of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths, all on one trip.”
While in Saudi Arabia, Trump is also expected to meet the leaders of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, which just bought a $2 billion Patriot missile system from the U.S. and which reportedly proposed to normalize relations with Israel, if Israel would make gestures to the Palestinians, such as freezing settlement construction.
Trump is likely to find a warm reception among the Gulf leaders, not just because they want American arms but also because of shared adversaries: shoring up support for the fight against ISIS is Trump’s stated main objective on the trip. Iran, ISIS, and Al-Qaida would love to see the Gulf monarchies fall, just as they claim to wish for the end of American power and the destruction of Israel.
When Obama landed in Cairo in early June 2009, in his speech reaching out to the Muslim world “A new beginning,” he challenged it to confront radicalism within itself and to look forward to a better, more just future.
Trump is explicitly going to Saudi Arabia only to secure American interests, having explicitly moved human rights off the table.
Rex Tillerson, Trump’s secretary of state, laid out the foreign policy implications of “America First” earlier this month: the U.S. must not condition its national security efforts on other countries adopting U.S. values. “It really creates obstacles" to the ability to achieve U.S. security and economic interests, Tillerson explained. (He did elaborate that while American values may no longer be prerequisites in negotiations with other countries, they still remain among the U.S.’s guiding principles.)
Trump is unlikely to address Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the conflict in Yemen, which has pitted the Saudis against Iran in a proxy war for regional power. Since March 2015, estimates in Yemen put the death toll over 10,000, with over 40,000 casualties and 17 million left food insecure.
Simply ignoring the darker aspects of Saudi Arabia’s foreign and domestic policy, as far as traditional American values are concerned, in order to achieve American security goals is the starkest difference between Trump and his predecessors. Obama publicly showed displeasure with the Saudis and George W. Bush built an entire foreign policy doctrine around promoting freedom and democracy abroad. Trump has clearly stated that Saudi business is not the U.S’s concern unless it affects U.S. interests.
The American agenda in the Middle East, at least since World War II, had been consistently pro-democracy. Trump isn’t even pretending that’s a concern. On the other hand, he can claim to be looking out for America’s interests first.