Trump’s Middle East reset
Kicking off his first foreign trip with a whirlwind tour of the Middle East, President Trump this week adopted a strikingly softer tone on Islam, urged Arab leaders to step up their efforts to stamp out extremism, and pledged to launch a new peace process in Israel. The president was given an elaborate red-carpet reception in Riyadh, where he announced a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi King Salman, and helped launch a new global center to combat “extremist ideology.” Addressing the premiers of about 50 Muslim nations, Trump described Islam as “one of the world’s great faiths,” saying the battle against extremism wasn’t between “different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations,” but between “good and evil.” He called on the leaders to “drive” radicals out of their societies, urged them to work together to isolate Iran, and—in a thinly veiled repudiation of President Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech on human rights—reassured them he wouldn’t “lecture” them about “how to live.” His approach, he said, would be based on “principled realism.”
Trump then traveled from Saudi Arabia to Israel, on what was believed to be the first-ever direct flight between the two nations. The president, who also became the first sitting U.S. leader to visit Jerusalem’s Western Wall, told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the “common cause” Israel shared with its Arab neighbors over the threat posed by extremism and Iran could serve as a foundation for better relations. After meeting Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Trump said both sides were “ready to reach for peace.”
The president’s trip continued on to Europe, where he met Pope Francis at the Vatican. Last year, Trump and the pontiff exchanged harsh words, when Francis said a person who wants to build walls rather than bridges is “not Christian”—a criticism Trump called “disgraceful.” In person, the two leaders spoke privately for 30 minutes, and in a pointed gesture, the Pope gave Trump his encyclical on climate change. The president then flew to Brussels for meetings with EU and NATO leaders, and was scheduled to end the nine-day trip in Sicily at the annual G-7 summit.
What the editorials said
Given his long history of comments such as “Islam hates us,” President Trump’s more responsible tone in Saudi Arabia was “long overdue,” said The New York Times. But his new Middle East strategy—forging an alliance with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states against Shiite-led Iran—is a huge mistake. The Saudis’ human rights record “is no better than Iran’s,” and they’re responsible for spreading Wahhabism, the fundamentalist Sunni orthodoxy that gave rise to al Qaida, ISIS, and other terrorist groups.
The Iranians, on the other hand, have just re-elected the moderate President Hassan Rouhani, “reaffirming their interest in engagement with the West.” Is this really the time to be giving up on them?
Don’t pay too much attention to that “sham presidential vote” in Iran, said The Wall Street Journal. Rouhani has “presided over continuing domestic repression and regional aggression,” and the Revolutionary Guards continue to assist President Assad’s troops in Syria, Shiite militias in Iraq, and Hezbollah in Lebanon. In other words, President Obama’s nuclear deal was as foolish as its critics warned. Granted, “the Saudis are imperfect allies.” But they’re the “linchpins of the U.S.-led order in the Middle East.” Let’s hope this reset is permanent.
What the columnists said
Give Trump credit for “picking sides,” said Timothy Stanley in CNN.com. No, the choice isn’t “ideal”—Saudi Arabia is a “fossilized monarchy that won’t even let women drive.” But compared with Iran, whose fanatical religious leaders want “to hurt the West,” the Saudis aren’t the “bad guys.” But in sucking up to the Saudis, said Peter Beinart in TheAtlantic.com, Trump only proved he’s a phony and “a coward.” The tough guy who insisted for two years on saying “radical Islam” suddenly became “politically correct” when he landed on Arab soil, and bowed meekly when the Saudi royals flattered him with honors and praise. This is typical: Trump said “wildly offensive things” about Mexico and China, only to “crumple” when he met their leaders in person.
As for Trump’s pledge to forge an Israel-Palestine peace deal, “good luck to him,” said Gregg Carlstrom in Politico.com. Netanyahu’s right-wing government is “loath to make any concessions to Palestinians, who are themselves split between Fatah and Hamas.” And while leadership changes may be on the horizon—Abbas is 82 and unhealthy, Netanyahu is immersed in a corruption scandal— their most likely replacements are even less likely to make a deal. Besides, Trump is already politically wounded at home, and “may not have much political capital to spend on the peace process.”
Still, you never know, said Noah Rothman in CommentaryMagazine.com. Trump’s strategy is “wildly divergent from his predecessors’”—he hopes to thaw relations between the Arab world and Israel before taking on the issue of Palestinian statehood. There’s no guarantee this unorthodox approach will work, but it is at least a new strategy. After so many failed attempts at peace, it’s time to abandon our “burdensome, dog-eared diplomatic playbook,” and give Trump a chance.
On the cover: King Salman of Saudi Arabia, President Donald Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Illustration by Fred Harper. Cover photos from AP, Getty, AP