Trump on the Road: Practical Realism

Terry H. Schwadron

Wait! Who did America just send to visit the Saudis and an audience of leaders of 50 Muslin-dominant countries?

It couldn’t have been Donald Trump, because his speech sounded more Obama than Trump, more Hillary Clinton than Steve Bannon.

What happened to standing up to the Saudis who caused 9/11? What happened to “radical Islam jihadists”? What happened to travel bans and “Islam hates us”?

No, our chameleon president wrapped himself in diplomatic robes, actually listened to his national security staffers and talked about terrorism as a battle between good and evil to be fought by “decent people” of all religions.

That’s the kind of talk Obama would have — and did give. What must the faithful back home be thinking? Among his skeptics and political foes, this speech sounded totally reasonable, the kind of common sense, hate-free speech we’d like to hear from an American president.

But among the hard-core Trumpists? What must they be thinking — that someone stole Donald Trump in the middle of the night and replaced him with a ventriloquist?

As news organizations noted, while Mr. Trump who blistered Hillary Clinton and Obama for failing to use the expression “radical Islamic terrorism,” Mr. Trump or his advisers and speechwriter might have actually thought about this audience and skipped it too. He called it “Islamist extremism” instead, as if that made a difference. Describing the fight against terrorism, Trump spoke of “honestly confronting the crisis of Islamic extremism and the Islamists and Islamic terror of all kinds. A senior White House official later said that Trump merely misspoke in using the word “Islamic” rather than “Islamist.”

Overall, this was the first presidential appearance in a foreign capital, and every move, from bows (not at the airport, but to accept a gold medal) to style (and ungainly dancing with Arab swordsmen) and language was being scrutinized for clues as to what foreign policy means to the President.

There did seem recognition that he needs to woo these countries rather than bar them, and there was affirmation that anti-Iranian feelings are alive — despite the weekend’s reelection of a more moderate leader.

I hadn’t intended to write about the trip, but I am curious about what he accomplishes, what he says he accomplishes, and what the reporters traveling with him think he accomplishes. I’m interested in how he goes about selling America First as a concept that others want too, and, of course, how he balances being president with being Trump.

What stood out to me was this statement from the President: “We are adopting a principled realism.” Tricky, that. Do we believe in some values or not?

Is that a statement of world leadership? What does it mean beside giving license to make business deals with countries that lock up or kill their outspoken citizens or ignore concerns from their women and girls? Does it apply to us as well?

Setting aside public concern about human rights in a country that does not do much about them, the President said, “We are not here to lecture. We are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be or how to worship. Instead, we are here to offer partnership, based on shared interests and values.”

Interesting view of the world from someone who cannot stop even to listen to anyone with a differing opinion from his own. Interesting also since he is quick exactly to lecture others on how to live, whether they can have health care, abortions, whether they can ask for clean air and water, whether they can question whether he has evidence for anything he says.

The President put himself forward as a representative of American values, and the deal-maker who could bring home deals that would result in American jobs. That does seem to be the point — business trumps (!) concern about human rights. Yeah, let Ivanka meet with some women, but for the big stuff, get the checkbooks out. That’s what matters.

So, Mr. Trump did get memorandums promising Saudi purchase of about $110 billion in U.S.-made weapons, deals that obviously were arranged ahead of the visit.

Until I pored over the coverage, I had not realized that the President had invited along a few dozen corporate leaders from the United States to follow through on the announcements.

The Washington Post analyzed the deals and, despite the White House claims that these deals were new, found a mixed bag for American job news. Many of the deals have been pending for some time, and only some will increase hiring at U.S. defense contractors; other jobs will go to Saudis with plans to build some systems in Arabia. Meanwhile, speaking before President Trump, King Salman, the Saudi leader, appeared to be gently admonishing the United States for its strict visa policies, saying that all in the room rejected “profiling religions and countries on a religious or sectarian basis.” But he praised Trump and the decision to make Saudi Arabia the first stop on his first overseas trip. Trump, he said, “has many hopes and aspirations with the Arab and Muslim worlds.”

Let’s face it, even this early, this visit could have been far, far worse with insults strewn as generally towards Muslims as he had during the political campaign.

On to Israel. Wonder what they want to buy?




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