Godspeed, Mr. President
Battered and bruised at home with wanton wounds self-inflicted, President Trump has begun his nine-day Euro-Asian sojourn. This ambitious expedition, arriving not a moment too soon, begins in the wake of an American political scenario gravid with tumult and increasingly swollen with scandal. An expedition abroad is a fool-proof way to improve perceptions at home. A politician always appears more favorably to his constituents when viewed from afar. But so far as this presidency has proven, fool-proof is a bar often set too high.
Alighting from Air Force One in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, President Trump will commence the week’s agenda with a message to regional Muslim leaders. Penned by Stephen Miller and hopefully rehearsed en route to the desert destination, Trump’s speech to kick off his foreign appearance will be ironic. If one recalls December 2015, the long forgotten days when there were seventeen Republican candidates from which to choose, Trump announced his astonishing “Muslim ban” to equally fervid castigation and jubilation on the left and right.
It was around this time, and around this chauvinistic call to isolation, that Trump began to be seen by many as a candidate in earnest. For a man often criticized for speaking from two sides of the same pouty pair of lips (examples need not fill the lines here, as they are easily found on other forums), it would be nothing short of par for the contradiction course if he now, being on Arabic soil, races to embrace Islamic inclusivity. When he was still just a candidate, his message of Muslim exclusion was a differentiating linchpin, an “id” statement many thought but dared not say. Now it seems an antithetical message will mark his incipient foreign diplomacy record.
It’s too soon to tell if Muslim leaders will likewise receive the man and message seriously, as was done in America. History should give them pause, however, and it would behoove them to consider that what looks like an olive branch might turn out to be a ten-foot pole with the writing, “Keep out!” on the end. This is especially true when the words are not Trump’s own, as they certainly aren’t in this case. They might want to await the now habituated early morning tweet that contradicts courteous words said the day before.
After assuaging the Saudis and trepidatious Muslim leaders, Trump will venture with his retinue to Israel. He’ll be working slightly a-chronologically through the Abrahamic religions (Islam being the most recent invention) when he arrives in the Jewish homeland. This visit could be of potential intrigue, as it has not yet been a week since Trump spoiled the secrecy of some Israeli intel (and consequently may have compromised their source) to the Russians. The veneer will be amicable and pleasantries will be customarily passed between President Rivlin, Prime Minister Netanyahu, and President Trump, but one is left to wonder if a mild slap on the wrist isn’t warranted. It’s been said that Israeli Intelligence officials are displeased if not empurpled with Trump’s Oval Office faux pas. Seeing and hearing directly from the country whose asset was endangered might provide Trump a learning experience about tact and repercussions.
The Trumps, including Ivanka, who is Jewish by conversion and Kushner who is so by nativity, will have the opportunity to visit the Western Wall (a surprisingly unprecedented appearance by a sitting American president) and Yad Vashem Holocaust museum before parading to Palestine where they will meet a former Holocaust denier, President Mahmoud Abbas. One or two days with President Abbas should provide Kushner ample time to codify a plan to initiation the cessation of hostilities between the two disparate religious groups. Attention must be devoted to Trump’s denunciations or commendations of the Palestinian cause. President Obama, in the expiry of his second term, attempted a transfer of over $200 million to Gaza for relief funding. This monetary consummation was halted, but nevertheless, Trump appears much cooler or ambivalent toward the Palestinian cause. He may simply state his desire for both parties to simply to “get along” and advance no moral imperative on land claims or two state solutions.
Next on the agenda is a visit to the world’s smallest and most historic of countries, Vatican City. It is here Trump will make the formal acquaintance of his Beatitude, Pope Francis. Another potentially contentious audience portends, as the two men’s worldviews are hardly compatible. Delineating their vices and virtues would serve to exceedingly demean Trump, but when put up against the Vicar of Christ, everyone can expect to fall a bit short. At the very least, one couldn’t pretend Trump is a devoted Christian by any normal sanctimonious standard—nor do I think Trump would disagree. The whole “blessed are you who are poor” apothegm probably doesn’t resound with a man whose gaudy hotels sport gold smattered elevators, succulent steaks and chocolate cakes.
The Bishop of Rome will embrace him with gregariousness, and Trump might deluge an untapped reservoir of humility with which to ingratiate himself to Pope Francis. I expect this to last only until they begin comparing pericopes in the two holiest of books. Those are, of course, The Bible and The Art of the Deal. There is a commonality that shouldn’t be overlooked between the two; both were written under the influence of a ghost. The former by the holy spirit, the latter by Tony Schwartz. This is a small distinction, but specters ought to get their due. Scripture aside, theirs will be a curious meeting because the Argentine’s progressive papacy has not been shy in its responses to candidate and President Trump’s rhetoric. Pope Francis has made intermittent headlines with his indirect responses to Trump’s vituperations about the border wall and Muslim ban. If ever conciliation was to be bred, though, it would be beneath The Creation of Adam rather than within the Twittersphere.
At this point in the journey, I expect President Trump to be an absolute doyen of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition. If this expectation is a bit lofty, perhaps more realistically he can be the man to rattle the historic religio-cultural strife and mutual acrimony with realpolitik and his vaunted deal-making ability. The tired, ancient internecine mindsets have been unsuccessful in prompting harmonious religious relations and tolerance. Maybe Trump is the man to succeed where so many have failed.
When this ablutionary first leg of the journey has culminated, President Trump will make a volte-face toward matters more comfortably found in his wheelhouse. In Brussels, he’ll meet with fresh-faced French President Macron and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. The point of intrigue will manifest during inevitable NATO discussions. Trump will most assuredly hold fast to the grievances regarding NATO that became a pillar of his presidential platform. His obduracy on this point was made patently clear when Chancellor Merkel visited Washington months ago. Whether or not his insistence on NATO debt payments remains, he can be expected to denounce the current system in Belgium.
The trip concludes with the G7 Summit in Sicily. With so many dignitaries and foreign heads of state concentrated in one place, one hopes President Trump can remain dignified and terse. Past spats with diplomats ought to be squelched, and nescient statements itching on his tongue should be quelled. Arriving in Europe as green newcomer and departing with the respect of a varsity player will do wonders to a debilitated public image. It may even turn opinions at home, where upon returning, he will still have much to answer for. Godspeed, Mr. President. Godspeed.