In comparison with that of his immediate predecessor, Trump’s first foreign foray is not only late but also stands in stark contrast to President Barack Obama’s early trips to Canada, Britain, Germany and France.
In keeping with his precedent-crushing presidency, this road trip is a veritable extravaganza designed to cram as much pageantry, showmanship, big stage photo-ops and perhaps some serious business into a jam-packed itinerary.
So what does Trump — beleaguered at home — hope to accomplish on his first trip abroad?
Change the channel
There’s a certain irony in the fact that Trump is seeking relief from his domestic troubles by plunging into the cruel and unforgiving world that America confronts abroad, particularly the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a good many skeptical allies.
Still, foreign policy has always offered presidents an opportunity to strut on the international stage and revel in the independence they have on national security issues.
In June 1974, a mere two months before he resigned, Richard Nixon embarked on a whirlwind Middle East trip to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and Israel.
Assuming Trump avoids any significant self-inflicted gaffes or stumbles, the trip might provide a way to rise — at least temporarily — above the political muck and fray by meeting with American allies and talking resolutely about matters of war and peace.
Avoid Obama’s Middle East stumbles
In Trump land, all roads — taken or not — begin with an effort to draw sharp differences with his predecessor. Though this isn’t unique to the Trump administration, the “I’m doing it my way” trope is something of a passion with the President. And nowhere will that be clearer than in Trump’s first two stops in Saudi Arabia and Israel.
First, he will be carrying a much tougher position on Iran than Obama — a change that is delighting both the Saudis and Israelis.
Second, Trump won’t be skipping Israel — as Obama did on his first Middle East trip. Indeed, he will giving a major speech to the Muslim world in Saudi Arabia and a major address in Israel at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
Making Saudi Arabia his first foreign stop is clearly designed to dispel the idea that Trump is anti-Muslim.
Reassure but press US allies
If Trump is serious about moving the Israeli-Palestinian issue forward, his first two stops won’t be all smiles. He’s hoping he can use his tough position on Iran as a way to get the Gulf Arabs to reach out to Israel and press the Palestinians — and as result, get the Israelis to make some concessions.
Nor is it clear that Riyadh is prepared to take meaningful steps without significant Israeli concessions. Obama got nowhere with the Saudis on these confidence-building measures, even though he sold more arms to Saudi Arabia than his predecessors.
Whatever else Trump may not know about Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, he almost certainly understands that unless he presses Netanyahu for concessions, there’s no chance for progress, let alone a chance for his “ultimate deal.”
The trip will also — whether intended or not — have one other consequence. Trump’s conception of “America First” might have been easily interpreted to mean that US foreign policy would morph into America acting unilaterally without the need for allies or partners.
Yet from beginning to end, this foreign foray has some variation of alliance politics written all over it. Indeed, maybe the new mantra ought to be “America Dependent.”
Trump can’t make Israeli-Palestinian peace alone. He can’t defeat ISIS and keep it from returning in another form alone. Nor can he contain or dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program alone. He will conclude his trips participating in a NATO meeting, an alliance he once decried.
All of the foreign policy issues on Trump’s plate are long-term headaches requiring management and not leaving much opportunity for historic resolution.
Indeed, no matter who had been elected president, the world beyond America’s shores is a world to be transacted with, not transformed. And Trump’s first foreign trip is likely to be a reality check.
To have any hope of managing this unruly world, he’s going to require a good deal of help from nations he likes and from those he doesn’t.