Trump Signals Shift in Middle East Strategy With Symbolic First Stop in Saudi Arabia
By Peter Heinlein May 15, 2017
U.S. President Donald Trump is about to embark on his first foreign trip, a nine day journey that takes him to the seats of the world's three great Abrahamic (monotheistic) religions and signals a 180-degree shift from his predecessor's approach toward the Middle East.
"The most useful way to look at President Trump's strategy is to see him as the anti-Obama," said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "He is definitively changing American foreign policy from the Barack Obama era to the Donald Trump era as it concerns the Middle East."
"Obama made a purposeful effort to talk directly to the people," Satloff explained. "His first trip to the Middle East included speeches not to national assemblies and parliaments, but to universities where he could talk over the heads of the leaders. He wanted to create a new balance in the Arab world, characterized by speaking to people rather than leaders."
"Trump wants to undo all that," Satloff said.
Symbolic first stop
The first stop on Trump's tour will be Saudi Arabia, site of Islam's holiest shrines, where he will be welcomed by King Salman, who is assembling a greeting committee of as many as 20 heads of state representing a large percentage of the world's 1.5 billion Sunni Muslims.
Trump's advisers see the Riyadh visit as an opportunity to repair the president's image with Muslims after an election campaign marked by rhetoric many saw as Islamophobic, and a presidency that began with announcement of a temporary ban on Muslim refugees, and visas for citizens from a handful of Muslim-majority countries.
Within the human rights community, the visit has been met with a collective shrug. "It's certainly a consistent choice, given the parade of dictators who've been welcomed at the White House," said Andrea Presow of Human Rights Watch.
Before he makes his first presidential step outside the United States, Trump will have hosted several autocratic Muslim leaders, including such heavyweights as Egypt's Abdel Fatah al-Sissi and Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan
"Expectations are low," said Richard LeBaron of the Atlantic Council, a former U.S. ambassador to Kuwait. "The travel ban didn't come as a shock to Muslims, LeBaron told VOA. "They had built it into their expectations about Trump."
But the image of being warmly greeted by such a strong representation of Sunni Muslim kings, emirs and presidents is a potential bonanza for a U.S. leader beleaguered by domestic troubles.
Radical ideology addressed
Briefing reporters about the trip, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said Trump would deliver a strong message to Sunni leaders about the need to confront radical Islamism, which McMaster called "an ideology that uses a perverted interpretation of religion to justify crimes against all humanity."
"He [Trump] will encourage our Arab and Muslim partners to take bold, new steps to promote peace and to confront those, from ISIS to al-Qaida to Iran to the Assad regime, who perpetuate chaos and violence that has inflicted so much suffering throughout the Muslim world and beyond," McMaster said.
That message is likely to be welcomed by Sunni Muslim leaders, who worried about Obama's outreach to Iran, which they see as a regional troublemaker.
Ali Shihabi, a Saudi national who is executive director of the Arabia Institute, a Washington based research organization, says Trump's visit "sends a message that he understands that America's Muslim allies are the first line of defense in the fight against terrorism".
Others question whether, as with so many Trump initiatives, there's less than meets the eye with the Middle East policy shift.
"But it may signal a possible shift in the marked hostility to Islam characterized by Trump's campaign,"said Nathan Brown, professor of international relations at George Washington University.
Robert Satloff says substantive change or not, the symbolism of simultaneously reaffirming America's longstanding ties with Sunni Arab states and Israel sends a powerful message to Iran that the other team - the pro-Western, pro-stability team - seems to have a captain that is ready to lead."
"Does that team actually have a strategy? Does it have a series of well-defined tactics ready to be executed?" Satloff asks. "That remains to be seen. But the first step, mainly getting the team together and providing leadership is important, and I'm quite sure the Iranians, and their team, are taking notice".