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Focus
Diplomacy as Usual
Trump brushes up U.S. policy on the Middle East with his first trip abroad
By An Gang | NO. 23 JUNE 8, 2017

Visiting U.S. President Donald Trump (left) talks with the President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem, West Bank, on May 23

U.S. President Donald Trump chose Saudi Arabia, the most important U.S. ally in the Gulf area, as the first stop of his maiden trip abroad since he took office in January. In the past, other U.S. presidents would normally make their first foreign trip to a European or American country, rather than one in the Middle East. Again Trump showed he is different from his predecessors.

The White House reportedly spent three months preparing for the president's eight-day tour. Trump began with Saudi Arabia on May 20 and subsequently visited Israel, Palestine and the Vatican City, which are the capitals of the three major monotheistic religions—Islam, Judaism and Christianity. He also attended two important summits, the NATO summit in Brussels and the G7 summit in Italy.

Regarding the purpose of Trump's first trip abroad, the White House said on its official website that the president would "seek to reaffirm America's global leadership, continue building key relationships with world leaders, and deliver a message of unity to America's friends and allies."

Middle Eastern focus

The first foreign tour of a U.S. president is usually an important weather vane. This was a sign that suggested the Trump administration attaches more importance to Middle Eastern affairs in its foreign policy.

Prior to his trip abroad, President Trump had met with state leaders, royal members and senior officials from Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Palestine and Egypt at the White House. He also keeps contact with some state leaders from Middle Eastern and North African countries. Trump is rapidly grasping Middle Eastern affairs as a political layman, and is seeking to set the tone for his Middle Eastern policy.

Trump intends to retrench U.S. influence from the chaos of the Middle East by improving the efficiency of strategic resource allocation. Trump looks set to focus on two things: expanding the international coalition against jihadists and advancing the peace talks between Israel and Palestine. Obama was criticized for his idealistic Middle East policy which estranged U.S. ties with Israel. Trump is determined to reverse the situation by re-pivoting U.S. resources to the interests of Israel while maintaining prudence in dealing with complex regional issues.

The Trump administration's Middle East policy has taken shape. He believes the United States should stop involving itself in the thankless job regarding regime change and political reconstruction in foreign countries. Instead, the country should concentrate on fighting against terrorist groups like the so-called Islamic State (ISIS).

During his visit to Israel and the West Bank of Palestine, Trump did not repeat his radical announcement about the Israel-Palestine issue that he made in the election campaign. He put aside the plan to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He also called for more consultation with Middle Eastern allies to promote peace in the region.

Trump appeared to be tough on Iran. He has imposed new sanctions over the country's missile test, but has not carried out his hyperbolic campaign pledge to scrap Obama's nuclear deal with Iran, though he has been highly critical of it.

Washington has taken steps to enhance military and defense cooperation with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Gulf states. During his stay in Riyadh, Trump applauded a new relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia with the signing of a landmark agreement, including a $110-billion Saudi-funded defense purchase.

Trump has tightened the visa issuance on people coming from some Islamic countries in an attempt to reduce terror threats at home and protect domestic job opportunities.

Anti-terrorism coalition

Apart from enhancing partnership with Saudi Arabia, Trump sought to consolidate U.S. leadership in an expanded counter-terrorism coalition and enhance support from the Muslim world.

President Trump delivered a long speech at the Arab Islamic American Summit held in Riyadh on May 21. Around 50 state leaders from all six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council and other Muslim countries attended the summit. In his speech, Trump emphasized the friendship between the United States and the Muslim world. He praised Islam as "one of the world's great faiths" and remarked that the Middle East "should increasingly become one of the great global centers of commerce and opportunity."

Most importantly, Trump stressed that "this summit will mark the beginning of the end for those who practice terror and spread its vile creed." He called on Islamic nations to "drive out the terrorists and extremists." He stated that "more than 95 percent of the victims of terrorism are themselves Muslim."

He also promised that "America will not seek to impose our way of life on others, but to outstretch our hands in the spirit of cooperation and trust." In his remarks, Trump made clear the goals for the United States and Middle Eastern nations to cooperate on fighting against terrorism.

The first task in the joint effort is for all participating nations to deny all territory to terrorists, and all countries must also strip terrorists of their access to funds.

While speaking highly of the contributions of Middle Eastern nations like Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other U.S. allies in fighting terrorists and extremists, Trump accused Iran of "fueling the fires of sectarian conflict and terror for decades."

In addition to the speech, Trump announced two action plans to support the U.S.-led international coalition against terrorism. One is the opening of a new Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology located in Riyadh. The newly reached U.S.-Saudi military deal on a package of defense equipment and services will support the 10-year security term of Saudi Arabia and help Saudi Arabia take a leading role in the center and among Arabian nations.

The other one is an agreement to prevent the financing of terrorism, called the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center—co-chaired by the United States and Saudi Arabia, and joined by every member of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Strengthened Israeli bond

Trump strengthened the partnership between the United States and Israel during the second leg of his trip—Jerusalem. Trump became the first sitting U.S. president to visit the Western Wall, one of Judaism's holiest sites.

In meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump claimed that under his administration, the United States stands with Israel. The two sides would work together on the common tasks of maintaining regional security, stopping Iran from gaining nuclear capabilities and promoting peace between Israel and Palestine.

In Bethlehem, the West Bank city, Trump met with the President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas. Trump urged Palestinian leaders to take productive steps toward peace. Abbas refuted by saying that any Palestine-Israel peace treaty should be based on the recognition of Palestine as an independent state. On how to promote Israel-Palestine peace talks, it is clear that Trump has not yet conceived a feasible and practical solution.

The policy vision

The trip has shown the world that the Trump administration attaches great importance to Middle Eastern affairs. But it is hard to see a fully-fledged outline of Trump's Middle East policy through his trip to the region.

Trump has taken a number of moves in the Middle East, including missile strikes in Syria and a trip to the region. But these moves were mostly responsive to events. There is a lack of a clear and coherent strategy on the region, despite it always being an important part of every administration's foreign policy.

Trump indicated that ISIS is the common enemy of the world and he solicited the U.S. allies in the Middle East and Europe to strengthen the joint fight against the terrorist group. But if the United States could not thoroughly eradicate the soil which breeds terrorism and extremism, the Western world would remain vulnerable to terror threats.

Trump has repeatedly stated that Iran is a major challenger of U.S. geopolitical interest in the Middle East. He attempts to continue the policy taken up by the Bush administration by openly supporting the Sunnis and suppressing the Shiites. Trump has strengthened aid for Arabian nations to help them confront Iran. Yet Iran is unlikely to stay in a passive position: It is extending its influence in regional affairs and seeking cooperation with other world powers.

Trump is pragmatic and calculating in diplomacy. He tries to sell U.S. arms to both Arabian nations and Israel. He not only attempts to collect a protection fee from U.S. allies in the Middle East, but also entices them to invest more in the U.S. economy. The policies would render the United States as the chief beneficiary. However, such unbalanced cooperation is unlikely to be popular with U.S. allies, let alone creating a Middle Eastern version of the NATO.

Trump had vowed to push Israel-Palestine talks to achieve substantial progress during his presidency. However, there is a wide gap between the two sides. The Netanyahu cabinet acts tough on peace talks, not giving an inch. If Trump stands too close with Israel, it is impossible to earn trust from Abbas and the Palestinians.

Although Trump's Middle East peace project has yet to be achieved, he has started to work on it earlier than many of his predecessors. Perhaps, Trump could achieve meaningful progress on the thorny issue.

The author is an op-ed contributor to Beijing Review and a researcher at the Pangoal Institution

Copyedited by Dominic James Madar

Comments to liuyunyun@bjreview.com

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