As I began writing this piece, President Donald Trump was flying on Air Force One heading to Saudi Arabia. There he met with leaders from the Gulf Arab states and others from across the Muslim world. He then traveled to Israel to meet with both Israelis and Palestinians. From there, he headed to the Vatican to meet with the Pope, to Belgium to meet with European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) leaders, and finally to Italy to meet with G-7 leaders.
For someone with no diplomatic experience prior to assuming office, it was a tall order. It’s almost like someone choosing to get a Ph.D. in astrophysics upon entering college despite having no background in science.
So, did Donald Trump deliver on this trip? Did he make his first foray into foreign policy a success?
When he departed, the American national security community essentially didn’t think he would. Yet because expectations were so low, any appearance of positive reactions to Trump from abroad may in fact be perceived as real wins for him.
But are they truly wins for us, the American people?
This is unclear, as our current foreign policy appears to be a combination of suspended animation and opacity, with many of President Barack Obama’s policies carrying the day while Trump’s are still in formation.
For example, despite his scathing criticism on the campaign trail of the Iran nuclear deal, Trump just last month validated it by waiving sanctions related to the deal, thereby ensuring its continued implementation. This deal, while not resolving all the problems associated with negative Iranian behavior in the Middle East, did ensure that the worst-case scenario — an Iranian nuclear bomb — continues to be avoided. Kudos to Trump for keeping the deal in place. There are other ways to provide security for our Gulf Arab allies and Israel, vis-à-vis Iran, rather than by dismantling the deal.
But on the other hand, Trump is approving deeper American military engagements into the Middle East, engagements that his political base hates, with barely an explanation from the White House. For instance, we are sending more troops to Afghanistan, reversing a previous policy, while bombing the Syrian military without explicit legal authorization. At the same time, we have minimal diplomatic strategy driving our policy towards Iraq and Syria beyond defeating the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). This could lay the groundwork for further terrorism, as national political reconciliation in both countries gets pushed to the side due to American diplomatic inattention.
Add to this the reality that our intelligence community has been shell-shocked by the firing of FBI Director James Comey and Trump’s sharing of classified intelligence with the Russians in the Oval Office, and it’s understandable why expectations for the trip were low.
Trump did achieve clear deliverables, such as new trade deals for our businesses, which the administration inked with the Saudis in Riyadh. But despite much anticipation to the contrary, the president did not offer a vision for how to conclude the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
As it turns out, the United States has a credibility gap on its ability to deliver foreign promises. For instance, our State Department and foreign aid budgets are expected to be cut by up to 30 percent, while the global threats that these budgets address, such as terrorism, poverty, disease and drug trafficking, worsen. So with his diplomatic corps not fully staffed to take on this challenge, and aid money in short supply, what can Trump commit to any foreign audience?
Unfortunately, rather than being a clarification of the president’s vision for America’s role in the world, it appears that the results of his first foreign trip were instead a series of visits heavy on photo ops and light on action about how he plans to make America both safer and more secure.
Joel Rubin is a former deputy assistant secretary of state. He leads his own foreign policy consulting firm, the Washington Strategy Group. He is also a member of the Town Council in Chevy Chase.