A president’s first trip abroad is, traditionally, an honorific nod to a major ally or neighbor. Since the modern era of presidential diplomatic travel abroad begin after World War II, there have been twelve new Presidents. Of the 11 preceding Trump, from Eisenhower to Obama, all but two of them made their first trip abroad to either Canada or Mexico. The two exceptions, were the United Kingdom (Jimmy Carter), and a NATO summit in Brussels (Richard Nixon).
To that list President Trump has now added… Saudi Arabia.
At the Washington Post, Anne Applebaum notes a few reasons this is so problematic, starting with the most obvious.
It was a very strange choice for a first trip abroad. The past four American presidents, two Republicans and two Democrats, made their first trips to either Mexico and Canada, countries that are close trading partners, close allies, compatible democracies and of course neighbors. Trump chose, instead, to make his first presidential visit to an oligarchic kleptocracy which forces women to hide their faces and forbids them to travel without a male guardian’s permission.
A counterargument to this might be that Trump is signaling boldness and taking on the biggest areas of concern. In addition to Saudi Arabia, he is also stopping off in Israel, and at the Vatican, hitting the monotheistic religious trifecta before finally arriving at the NATO summit followed by a G-7 meeting.
This, however, is undercut by the substance of his message and the public-diplomacy implications of cuddling up to the Saudis so visibly and lavishly. Previous American administrations have gone to some pains to at least appear to draw a distinction between our geopolitical alliance with the Saudis, versus condoning their brutal and oppressive governance and fundamentalist ideology. It rings spectacularly hollow and hypocritical for the American President and his Secretary of State to condemn Iranian human rights abuses, or the horrors of the Syrian regime, while standing on Saudi soil alongside grinning Saudi princes.
Trump in Saudi Arabia was less of a disaster than many expected, but only because he managed to stay on script and didn’t do anything terribly embarrassing – besides having his hand swatted by his wife as he tried to grab it while walking on the tarmac. There were no particularly grotesque or insulting condemnations of Islam like we heard on the campaign trail. However, the optics and message of the visit are still highly debatable, even without the usual sideshow ad-libbing. There are, unfortunately, serious foreign policy implications to boosting our alliance with the Saudis in this manner.
(Photo of Donald Trump arriving in Saudi Arabia courtesy The White House.)