What Did Trump Accomplish on His First Foreign Trip?

Some firm handshakes, forced smiles, and awkward sword dances. In short, nothing.

President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump arrive at the airport.
President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump arrive at the airport. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

Let’s hear it for the Rainbow Tour
It’s been an incredible success
We weren’t quite sure, we had a few doubts

Will Evita win through?
But the answer is yes

There you are, I told you so
Makes no difference where she goes
The whole world over just the same
Just listen to them call her name
And who would underestimate the actress now?

—Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, Evita

Like Donald Trump, Juan and Eva Perón were populists. They seem to have shared Trump’s understanding of the purposes of philanthropy (for more, read up about the Eva Perón Foundation) and the importance of fiscal probity. And like Eva in 1947, Donald Trump has just completed a glitzy overseas trip.

It had ample farcical episodes: the Saudi king, the dictator of Egypt, and the president of the United States placing their hands on a glowing orb that evoked for some a lampoon of Lord of the Rings. The secretary of state assuring us that no one overseas was paying attention to Trump’s domestic troubles (palpably, indeed laughably, untrue) even as his spokesman excluded the American press from a briefing attended by the considerably more docile reporters of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The national-security adviser insisting, “The entire trip is about human rights, about all civilized people coming together to fight the hatred”—an odd remark to make in a country that lops the hands off thieves and the heads off apostates. The commerce secretary, in one of his more witlessly thuggish remarks, observing complacently about urban Riyadh: “There was not a single hint of a protester anywhere there during the whole time we were there.” And then there were the video clips: Melania flicking away her husband’s groping hand and the Leader of the Free World giving the prime minister of little Montenegro a good hard shove.

It is proof of how low our standards are for judging Trump’s competence that he got high marks for delivering speeches more or less accurately, if woodenly, from teleprompters and scripts. He did not declare war on Islam. He spent only 15 minutes at Yad Vashem and left a semi-literate note there, but at least said nothing egregiously stupid. He was polite to the Pope. He said that the Germans were “bad, very bad” on trade but admired Egyptian president Sisi’s shoes. His motorcade was not stormed by angry European leftists. But what did he accomplish?

Normally, a president’s first overseas trips are to America’s immediate neighbors Canada or Mexico. Maybe to Europe, to engage with close allies like Britain or Germany. A daring move might have been to meet with similarly close partners like Australia and Japan; it might have been more audacious yet to go to India, whose burgeoning cooperation with the United States is the biggest geopolitical fact in our favor in Asia. In any case, the purpose is to cement the relationships that are our greatest source of international strength.

Instead, some tin-horn Talleyrand in the president’s entourage thought that this serial and unrepentant swindler, fornicator, and prevaricator was the man to bring together the three Abrahamic faiths by going to Riyadh, Jerusalem, and the Vatican. This conceit must strain Christian charity, let alone more austere Jewish and Muslim moralism.

It was foolish to begin the trip in Saudi Arabia, of all places. It is an ally, to be sure, but was also the home of roughly three-quarters of the 9/11 terrorists, and the source (from private funding) of terrorist financing, and far worse, of the teaching of Wahhabi doctrines inimical to the moderate forms of Islam that once prevailed around the world. Saudi and Gulf-funded religious schools, preachers, textbooks, and travel are a critical part of the story of the last several decades of violent jihad. The kingdom represses non-Muslim faiths and women, and it tolerates the barbarous treatment of foreign nationals. We forget those facts at our peril.

While there Trump, in effect, put the United States squarely in the camp of Arabs against their Persian enemies. This also largely put the U.S. in the camp of Sunni versus Shia Islam, which is profoundly unwise. Like the Saudis, the Gulf kingdoms, too, are indeed our allies, but it is not in America’s long term interest to take sides in the bitter sectarian divide that is now afflicting Islam. Iran is hostile, but in the long-term—although only after the revolutionary regime collapses or is overthrown—Iran will probably be more important to us than the Arab states, as it was before Khomeini toppled the shah. A quiet set of diplomatic missions would have sufficed.

The visit to Israel was merely silly. President Trump declared that he had not mentioned the word “Israel” in his now infamous session with Messrs. Lavrov and Kislyak in which he blew Israeli secrets to the Russians. In so doing he acted like the 8-year-old who, his hand caught in the jar filled with chocolate-chip cookies, adamantly insists that he has not filched a single oatmeal cookie. The Israelis welcomed his protestations of friendship, shrugged their shoulders at his chumminess with Bibi Netanyahu, quietly resolved to be more judicious in the future about what intelligence they share with the Americans, and after likely heaving a sigh of relief when Trump’s plane took off, went about celebrating the 50th anniversary of their 1967 victory.

What Trump certainly did not do, because it is impossible, is advance a long-term Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. At the moment, no Palestinian leader will accept an agreement that does not re-divide Jerusalem and provide for a right of return, but will acknowledge the legitimacy of the Jewish claim to the land of Israel. No Israeli leader can accept the former or conclude an agreement without the latter. Moreover, no sane Israeli, looking at the chaos engulfing Syria, the ominous pressures building in Jordan, and the active terrorist threat in Egypt can think that this is the right moment to put Ben Gurion airport within easy range of rockets and surface-to-air missiles from a new Palestinian state.

The Pope and the President were cordial, which was nice. Trump skipped the bits about common values with our NATO allies, or gratitude for their invoking the mutual-defense provisions of the North Atlantic Treaty on our behalf in the wake of 9/11. He did however complain about how unfair they were to American taxpayers and then quite reasonably nagged them about defense spending, as have his predecessors, and likely with as little result. He punted on deciding whether or not to endorse the Paris climate accords. Following this he attended a few more meetings, made a few more churlish remarks, and came home.

He inked some big arms deals in Saudi Arabia. In a very Middle Eastern (or Peronist) way, $100 million will now come sloshing in to one of Ivanka’s favorite charities. He got firm handshakes, glum looks, forced smiles, and awkward sword dances. In short, he got nothing serious. Actually, less than nothing. He made it clear, yet again, that his administration relegates issues of human rights and decent governance to the rank of tertiary concerns. This, in turn, is anything but realistic, because without necessary reforms those Arab authoritarian regimes will blow up sooner or later. Meanwhile, walking away from American values in the Middle East and Europe also diminishes what the United States is, has been, and should be.

During these spectacles, at home the scandal news came not in drips but spattering gouts. We learn that a “person of interest” close to the president is a focus of the Russia investigation, and that this is apparently is none other his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Making matters worse, Kushner was reported to have requested a communications channel directly through the Russian Embassy, to avoid U.S. government surveillance. We discover that the president had improperly asked the director of the National Security Agency and the director of National Intelligence to clear his late campaign of Russian connections. His former National-Security Adviser Michael Flynn decided to take the 5th, which from a judicial point of view means that one cannot infer his guilt, but from a common-sense point of view makes it look highly probable.

Meanwhile, in non-scandal news, the courts again threw out Trump’s Muslim travel ban, Republican politicians vied for the most creative way of saying “dead on arrival” about his budget, and the Congressional Budget Office unhelpfully observed that Trumpcare would deprive some 23 million Americans of healthcare.

For Trump, like other presidents—Richard Nixon most notably—foreign travel may have seemed an escape from domestic troubles. But like Evita’s Rainbow Tour, such junkets end sometime, yielding no result save to show us, yet again, how little there is beneath the façade of this paper mâché presidency.