Tuesday, 14 January, 2020

The Observer view on Donald Trump’s Middle East visit

By Observer editorial, The Guardian

One of the key questions posed by Donald Trump’s presidency is whether you can believe what he says and even whether he believes it himself. This dilemma was evident last week during his visits to the Middle East and Europe. In a speech in Saudi Arabia, Trump dropped the anti-Islam rhetoric that so disfigured his 2016 election campaign. There was no mention of his travel ban on Muslims, a headline policy that remains blocked in the US courts. His trademark phrase – “radical Islamic terrorism” – that gratuitously smears an entire religion with the misdeeds of a violent fringe, was absent. Instead, Trump made nice. Islam was “one of the world’s great faiths”, he said. He wanted a partnership between the US and the Muslim world built on “tolerance and respect for each other”.

Why this sudden change of tune? To say anything else at a heads of state summit on Arab soil would indeed have been crass, even by Trump’s lax standards. It would also have required a degree of personal courage of which he has never been suspected. The most convincing explanation is also the most disturbing: that Trump is more thoroughly at ease among monarchs, dictators and unelected autocrats who share his contempt for human rights, free expression and a free press. The democratically chosen leaders of the EU and Nato, whom he met later in the week, are for him less congenial companions. They have a legitimacy he finds threatening. Trump’s rude, ignorant public berating of the leaders of France and Germany over Nato budget shortfalls jarred badly after his fawning and toadying in the Gulf.

Trump’s Saudi sojourn, which preceded a brief visit to Israel, provided some indications about his approach on international issues, if indeed they can be trusted. It is becoming plain, for example, that we are rapidly returning to the pre-Obama practice of simplistically dividing the world into “good guys” and “bad guys”. George W Bush described the latter as “evil-doers”. Trump calls them “losers”. This playground terminology is applied to countries as well as individuals. Thus North Korea, for example, is once again threatened and reviled as a rogue state. In contrast, the Saudi regime, despite its egregious human rights abuses, institutional oppression of women, tolerance for and funding of anti-western ideologies and rejection of democratic norms, gets Trump’s seal of approval, marked by a multibillion dollar arms deal.

Trump called in Riyadh for an unrelenting, international campaign against religious extremism, at the same time fatefully placing the US firmly on the Sunni Muslim side of the Middle East’s gaping Sunni-Shia divide.

Ignoring the fact that most of the region’s terror victims, for example in Iraq, are Shias, ignoring the reality that both al-Qaida and Islamic State are hardline Sunni groups and ignoring Saudi complicity in the spread of extremist beliefs, Trump chose instead to direct his fire at Shia Iran. All “nations of conscience”, he said, should band together to isolate Iran and “pray for the day when the Iranian people have the just and righteous government they deserve”.

Does Trump understand what he is saying? Was he aware that days before he spoke, Iran held nationwide, democratic polls and re-elected a reformist president? Does he really believe that Iran, not Isis, is the foremost sponsor of terrorism? Or is he responding blindly to middle America’s perennial need for international bogeymen, to his own irrational hatred of Obama’s landmark nuclear deal and to overstated Saudi and Israeli fears? Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s fiercely anti-Iran prime minister, must be in the running for string-puller of the year. Trump is a bit big to be a puppet but he certainly acts like one at times.

Iran may not be innocent in the politics of the Middle East. But Tehran has largely adhered to the 2015 nuclear agreement. It has a right to expect the west to keep its word on improved relations and trade, rather than increased isolation and tighter US sanctions, as plotted by Trump and the Republicans in Congress. There is no good reason to escalate confrontation with Iran and plenty of reasons to fear the possible results. The probable, worrying truth is that Trump, uncertain what he believes, invincibly ignorant and woefully lacking in judgment and humility, simply does not know what he is doing.

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