President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia and then Israel served entirely cynical international and domestic political purposes. All contentious issues were ignored. The great power competition in the Middle East: US/Saudi and Russia/Iran has deepened.
President Trump’s current overseas tour is enmired in cynicism, to an extent that is somewhat breathtaking.
His appointments in Saudi Arabia and then Israel illustrated this reality glaringly. But, the cynicism starts at home, in the US.
His presidency is now unambiguously under threat from: the deepening enquiries into the question of relationships between him and members of his staff and Russian people and entities, targeted at influencing the outcome of the presidential election; his lying about these and other important matters, the obstruction of justice issue; his now demonstrated inability to govern.
In some ways the parlous state of affairs in which his presidency now languishes is best signified by the fact that he is conducting, urgently, a search for a team of lawyers to defend him from these enquiries.
Think about it, the President has himself initiated: a classic American adversarial process, to combat what he has called a “witch hunt”, in circumstances where it is on record that he has, in fact, already lied in public about elements of it.
This is the background domestic noise to Trump’s departure for foreign parts, to display his statesmanship. It must be doubted that his tour will fulfil its purpose as a distraction from this noise and troubles. Three days into his absence, he delivered to the Congress a budget proposal, which has been described as unconscionably cruel. It abandons virtually every undertaking he made to poorer Americans, a good many of whom voted for him. For example, the cuts would end health assistance and food stamps for millions of Americans.
The US polity is itself awash in cynicism and Faustian bargains. Sane republican leaders know exactly what they have on their hands with Trump as president, a person unfit for the job, and who is beginning to do their party great harm. But, they are prepared to go on with him while he promises to cut taxes and while they utilize newly acquired Republican majorities in State Houses to gerrymander electorates.
His unrelenting antics are making it ever more difficult for them to hold their breath, but they will continue for as long as it gives them the outcomes they cherish, such as these two key ones.
In Saudi Arabia, his hosts displayed a fine sense of his character, providing him with every element of glitter; swords, the most prestigious medal, a podium, limitless TV coverage and a programme light on substance, but deals he could announce. Officials had worked those out. They all had to do with vast sums of money tied to US weapons sales.
Incredibly, the Saudis will also invest in US infrastructure projects. So, oil money from the desert kingdom will rebuild the crumbling roads and bridges of Appalachia, the very areas the welfare of which will be cut by Trump’s new budget. And we thought he was against globalization!
In his public remarks: he condemned Iran, who were then re-electing its reformist President, Rouhani, and evil distortions of Islam, of which Iran was an example; failed utterly to even hint at any rights of women, human rights concerns about Saudi policies and practices; and, omitted the situation in Yemen in which, the Saudi’s have intervened militarily. Some 10,000 have died and 7 million are now facing starvation. They use US sourced weapons in Yemen.
Trump’s stance in Riyadh put the US firmly on the side of the Sunni against the Shia Muslims. This deepens the division between the US and Saudis on the one side and the Russians and Iranians on the other.
The Saudis got everything they wanted in realpolitik terms, for virtually no serious cost. The US got significant business in arms sales, and paid no price in terms of policy fibre. The truth is, Trump’s stance represented, essentially, a continuation of Obama’s.
The spectacle in Riyadh was one of mutually beneficial cynicism, baldly displayed.
Then the person routinely described by western TV outlets as “the leader of the free world”, went on to Jerusalem.
The nature of the mutual benefit said to be provided by the US/Israeli relationship is well know, if sharply asymmetric.
On the US side, it is impossible to win elections almost anywhere in the US, at any level, without being pro-Israel. This is an extraordinary phenomenon, too complex to be discussed here. It is sufficient for now, to note its extreme importance.
On the Israeli side, it has long been US policy to ensure the continued existence of Israel, to the point of major war, if that proved necessary. Naturally, this is also of profound importance.
So, any visit to Jerusalem of a US president will occasion a reaffirmation of this iron-clad relationship. What was striking, on this occasion, was the heightened cynicism on both sides, particularly in the demeanour of Prime Minister Netanyahu.
Simply, he behaved like the cat that had got the cream: he was rid of the reviled Obama; he had a President who recognized the permanent threat posed by Iran and the dreadfulness of the nuclear deal that the West had done with it; and, in Trump he had an interlocutor with whom short uncomplicated sentences, including words like “winners” and “losers” would constitute critical analyses.
On Trump’s side, he: visited and touched the wailing wall, appearing to pray there; visited Yad Vashem; spent one hour with Palestinian President Abbas at Bethlehem; and, declared to Netanyahu that he had discovered that the Israel/Palestine problem was a difficult one, but one which he believed he could solve. Netanyahu agreed to the first of these propositions and smiled at the latter.
Neither side appeared to experience any discomfort, or for that matter any inspiration, from their interactions. Trump was presumably unaware of the disquiet that conservative factions in Netanyahu’s government were expressing about his notion that he could fix the problem, because it could involve a two-State solution; which they reject.
Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst, Marwan Bishara, described Trump’s progress through Riyadh and Jerusalem as “ diplomatic pornography”. Bishara is not given to hyperbole.
The efficacy of Trump’s current tour in distracting, diverting attention, from the truly serious state of affairs his Presidency faces, can’t be judged accurately.
What can be said of it is: it changed nothing of what was already established in US relations with Saudi Arabia and Israel, except in the former case it further entrenched them, and this holds the possibility of further solidifying the current great power contest in the Middle East.
The pursuit of national political interests, above all else, has always been the core reality of international politics. Although curtailed by the existence of constitutions and laws, the same is true of the pursuit of narrow interests and power, within national polities.
Interestingly, the recognition of these realities about politics and politicians generally, has led to widespread cynicism among substantial numbers of ordinary people.
Donald Trump successfully exploited that cynicism to win his job. Hilariously, he is now conforming absolutely to type, and the question of the people waking up to this is now not a question of what will happen, but when.
The favoured American reflection on the basic issue of public credulity is Lincoln’s assertion that: all of the people can’t be fooled all of the time.
Also apposite in the time of Trump, could be Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic:
“A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”
Richard Butler AC former Ambassador to the United Nations, Chief UN Weapons Inspector in Iraq