Trump Ignores Middle East Past, Misunderstands Explosive Present, Endangers Future

There are problems when you either can’t or won’t read. You are completely dependent on others, weaseling advisors and media sycophants, for information and analysis. You become enamored with staged pageantry. You make ignorant statements and foolish decisions. That is a quick summary of Donald Trump’s first overseas trip as United States President. In Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Tel Aviv, Israel, and Rome, Italy, foreign leaders are scratching their heads and asking two questions. “How did such an fool get to be President of the United States?” and “How can we use this idiot for our own advantage?”

In Saudi Arabia, Trump posed for pictures, received a medal, and danced with medieval swordsmen. Then he agreed to sell United States military fighters to a government already committing genocide on one of its neighbors and financing militant, rightwing, Islamic orthodoxy around the world. By some estimates, Saudi Arabia has given $100 billion dollars to radical Islamic groups, the same groups Trump wants to stop. Trump may not remember but Osama Bin Laden and 15 of the World Trade Center terrorists were Saudi citizens. In his speech, Trump announced that these same Saudis would be the United States’ Sunni Muslim ally against Shia Iran. To hell with Saudi human rights abuses, its treatment of women, and its denial of citizenship rights to the children of guest workers born in the country. About one-third of the population of Saudi Arabia is officially considered guest workers. Freedom House, an American organization, ranks Trump’s friend Saudi Arabia among the 11 least free countries in the world today.

Perhaps Donald Trump forgot that in the past he accused Saudi Arabia of masterminding 9/11, killing gays, and enslaving women. It is the same country that Trump wanted to ban from exporting oil to the United States.

In an interview with CNBC, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, who was part of the Trump Saudi entourage, was ecstatic over the group’s welcome in the Saudi Kingdom. He commented that he did not witness a single protester or placard. Apparently Ross was unaware that public demonstrations are illegal in Saudi Arabia.

The Sunni-Shia division originated almost 1400 years ago. It started with a dispute over leadership of the Islamic religion after the death of Muhammad in 632. But the real conflict is a struggle for supremacy in the Islamic world, first between the Ottoman Turkish Empire and Persia, and now between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Contemporary battlefields include Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, where the Saudis air force is bombing civilians, and Pakistan. The Taliban in Afghanistan are Sunni. So are Al Qaeda and ISIS. Hezbollah is Shia. Now Trump, with all his lack of knowledge, is drawing the United States deeper into this quagmire. Nothing positive will come of it.

After leaving Saudi Arabia, Trump and his “posse” traveled to Israel where he threw himself and the United States into the middle of another intractable conflict. On landing in Israel, Trump announced he was seeking an historic peace deal between Israel and Palestinians living in Israeli occupied territories, but offered no plan for a solution. Trump then offended Arab groups by visiting occupied East Jerusalem and praying at a Jewish holy site wearing a yarmulke. Trump isn’t Jewish, so the act was just symbolic and infuriating.

Trump told Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu that he wants his to work with Saudi Arabia to promote regional peace but never hinted at whether this would involve the end of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and the formation of an independent Palestinian state. The problem, of course, is in the details. The Saudis are committed to an Arab Peace Initiative adopted by the 22 members Arab League in 2002. In exchange for peace between Arab states and Israel, Israel must withdrawal from occupied Palestinian territory back to borders established prior to the 1967 war. It must also agree to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital and to a “just” solution to the Palestinian refugee issue.

Israel immediately dismissed this proposal and since 2002 has added new settlements in occupied Palestinian territories. Netanyahu has shown little inclination toward concessions and many members of his governing coalition call for a complete Israeli annexation of the entire West Bank. An additional problem is Palestinian division. A weak and discredited Palestinian Authority administers parts of the occupied West Bank, but Hamas, which the United States and Israel consider a terrorist organization, governs the Gaza Strip.

While the mainstream press in the United States that Trump continually denounces was respectful of Trump’s diplomatic escapade, the Israeli press was much less generous. A headline in the Jerusalem Post declared “All Pomp And No Substance In Trump's Historic Israel Visit.” The article focused on how, in “all his public appearances, he managed to avoid using the term ‘two-state solution’,” and despite Trump’s “insistence that Israel and the Palestinians can reach his coveted ‘deal’,” he “clearly doesn’t have a plan of how to get there.” One opinion essay in Haaretz described the Trump visit as an “absurd series of empty gestures.” Another argued that Trump has “zero credibility among Palestinians, thanks to his aversion to the words ‘Palestinian state’ and ‘Israeli occupation’.”

A broadly smiling Donald Trump with a not quite as happy Pope Francis.
A broadly smiling Donald Trump with a not quite as happy Pope Francis.

In Rome, Pope Francis welcomed the touring Trump entourage despite previous well-expressed disagreements. An initial photograph showed a smiling Trump but a stone-faced Pop. They then met in the pope’s private study for about half an hour with only an interpreter present. Trump called the meeting “great” and “fantastic.” A Vatican statement described the meeting as “cordial.” It expressed the Pope’s hope the Roman Catholic Church could collaborate with the Trump administration on “health care, education and assistance to immigrants,” which is as unlikely as Trump producing peace in the Middle East.

The world can hardly wait to learn what “great” and “fantastic” ideas Trump shares with world leaders this week in Belgium at a dinner of representatives from NATO nations and in Sicily at the more selective summit meeting of the Group of 7 powers that include Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Stay tuned!

Note: In a remark that may have been a faux pas, bad geography, or just plain dumb, Donald Trump told a meeting with of Israeli government officials that his entourage " just got back from . . . the Middle East. We just got back from Saudi Arabia.” Many in the audience visibly grimace, especially because Arab nationalists denounced the founding of Israel in the Middle East as European occupation of Arab lands. If you don’t believe it, you can watch Trump on video, which I am sure many in the Middle East are doing.

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