TSG IntelBrief: The Challenge of Trump’s First Trip Abroad
May 19, 2017

The Challenge of Trump’s First Trip Abroad

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Bottom Line Up Front:

• On May 19 President Trump will embark on his first trip abroad since taking office.

• The administration has billed it as an attempt to unite three of the world’s great religions in the fight against terrorism and ideological extremism.

• The effort to achieve a degree of unity in purpose among America’s allies in the Middle East comes at a critical time in the lifespan of bin Ladenism.

• Nothing has done more to preemptively undermine the success of the President’s first trip abroad than the endemic culture of scandal in U.S. domestic politics. 

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On May 19 President Trump will embark on his first trip abroad since taking office. President Trump will visit two of America’s most critical Middle Eastern allies—Israel and Saudi Arabia—along with the Vatican, Belgium and Italy, in a tour that the administration has billed as an attempt to unite three of the world’s largest monotheistic religions in the fight against terrorism and ideological extremism. Yet, the President’s attempt to bring a degree of unity to the fight against terrorism and to advance America’s interests in Europe during the trip faces a host of challenges. That the visit takes place in the context of a string of domestic political scandals involving the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia only compounds the challenge to advancing U.S. interests on the President’s first international trip. 

The trip will begin with a multilateral summit in Saudi Arabia, where President Trump will meet with over 50 foreign leaders, and deliver a major speech addressed to the Muslim world. According to U.S. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, the President’s speech is “intended to unite the broader Muslim world against common enemies of all civilization and to demonstrate America’s commitment to our Muslim partners.” The effort to achieve a degree of unity in purpose among America’s allies in the Middle East comes at a critical time in the lifespan of bin Ladenism. Despite some limited military success in retaking territory from the so-called Islamic Statethe group remains a long-term threat, and al Qaeda has expanded its power to unprecedented heights across the Middle East. Furthermore, neither the West nor the Muslim world has achieved any meaningful degree of success in challenging the long-term ideological underpinnings of terrorist ideology. Indeed, the violent ideology of Osama bin Laden and its offshoots continues to proliferate, even after sixteen years of U.S. military operations against global terrorism. However, despite the obvious necessity of undermining the ideological foundations of bin Ladenism to defeat terrorism in the long-term, it is unlikely that a sitting American President—especially one that has so often and publicly espoused incendiary sentiments about Islam and Muslims—can credibly deliver such a message. Thus, the President’s symbolic gesture is likely to have a limited effect in tangibly countering the ideological basis of terrorism.

After departing Saudi Arabia, President Trump faces a variety of self-made political challenges at nearly every leg of the journey. In Israel, reports that President Trump gave highly-classified information—which was reportedly obtained from Israel through a close intelligence sharing partnership—to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador will likely cast a shadow over the President’s visit. There is also lingering uncertainty in Israel over President Trump’s willingness to vocally support Israel’s claims to sovereignty over parts of Jerusalem, as the President previously suggested he would. At the Vatican, many of President Trump’s more controversial policies—such as his vocal opposition to taking in refugees from the Middle East—will stand in stark contrast to the moral example embodied by Pope Francis. In Europe, the President will meet with leaders of the EU and NATO, organizations for which the President has—until only very recently—offered more opprobrium than praise. Growing concerns over the administration’s ability to withhold sensitive security-related information from Russia are likely to color any substantive exchanges regarding military and intelligence cooperation with European powers that remain wary of Russia’s aggressive posture toward the continent.

Nothing has done more to preemptively undermine the success of the President’s first trip abroad than the endemic culture of scandal in U.S. domestic politics since the start of the Trump administration. Since President Trump took office four months ago, the U.S. has witnessed a near constant stream of political crises,  likely leading American allies to temper even the most modest expectations for substantive progress on issues of mutual concern during the President’s trip. U.S. allies recognize that the ongoing turmoil over the Trump administration’s alleged ties to Russia is likely to consume a significant portion of the administration’s attention over the coming months, tempering the momentum for serious policy initiatives outside of the U.S. As the ability of the U.S. government to craft and execute complex, long-term policies is increasingly called into doubt over domestic political turmoil, there is a real risk that the U.S. will come to be viewed as an unstable and unreliable partner, diminishing its influence abroad.

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