Friday, May 26, 2017

Trump's overseas trip starts well, then falters

President Trump's first overseas trip as president began with glimmers of hope and amazement, but as the week wore on, familiar problems arose.

In Saudi Arabia and in Israel, Trump refrained from tweeting (glory, hallelujah!) and thereby avoided any insults and offensive remarks as he stuck to prepared remarks. What was most interesting in both countries was the apparent warmth and friendship between Trump and the Israeli and Saudi leaders. Nothing tangible was accomplished in these first visits to a region that has provided the spark for much of the world's violence and animosity over the past half-century. Nevertheless, the seeming camaraderie among the leaders of the United States, the Jewish state and the Islamic holy land was refreshing and hopeful.

Supporters of President Obama had to be confounded by the Israelis' and Saudis' declarations of friendship with Trump. It was clear that both countries preferred Trump to Obama, despite the fact that Obama is as personally charming, knowledgeable and cautious as Trump is offensive, unknowing and bombastic. In his determination to let the Middle East adversaries work things out on their own, Obama apparently offended both sides in the conflict, something that Trump has thus far avoided.

Trump could not, however, get through an entire week without saying something inappropriate or potentially destabilizing. In speaking to NATO leaders later in the week, Trump took on the tone of an angry teacher or coach, telling the allied nations that they weren't fulfilling their obligations. They were not spending enough on defense to meet their NATO obligations, he said. At the same time, he avoided any definitive endorsement of NATO's Article 5, which obligates each NATO country to come to the defense of any other NATO country if it is attacked by outside forces. Article 5 is the heart of NATO; without it, NATO would be as weak and helpless an OPEC without oil.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson followed up Trump's failure to say what NATO allies wanted to hear by clearly committing the United States to Article 5, but Tillerson's commitment could not erase Trump's overbearing lecturing of allied nations.

Trump's first overseas trip as president proved he can, when necessary, behave in a presidential manner. But he needs more practice at the craft.

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