Arab leaders should be wary of bromance with Trump
When US President Donald Trump travels to Saudi Arabia this month he likely will meet with many regional leaders in addition to Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. The Saudi government has invited heads of state from several Arab and Muslim countries to join him and Trump in the Saudi capital.
Although he has been in office less than four months, Trump already has met with the leaders of Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, as well as with the very influential Saudi deputy crown prince. Each of these meetings was spun as a great success by both parties, with Trump and his guest heaping personal praise on each other.
Trump likes receiving praise — and returning it (as long as he receives it first). Arab leaders, understandably frustrated after eight years of an Obama administration that was intent on pivoting away from the Middle East while lecturing about human rights, are delighted to have a president who talks tough on Iran and has no desire to tell them how to run their countries.
However, these leaders should be wary of being seen as too close to Trump, too aligned with his world view, whatever that is, and too enamoured of him. My warning to Arab leaders is: Do not be perceived as having a bromance with Trump.
First, remember that if you were not a head of state, this president probably would have tried to have immigration officials deny you a visa to visit the United States because of your religion — a religion that Trump has often disparaged.
Second, while the Trump administration is willing to sell you armaments, it also plans to slash the US foreign aid budget and has no interest in helping build economies or societies in the Middle East. Similarly, Trump talks about pursuing bilateral trade deals but he means those in which the United States comes out on top. Trump is not interested in win-win relationships; he is interested in we-win-you-lose relationships.
Third, no one knows yet where Trump truly stands on any issue, Middle East-related or otherwise. He praises the last person who praised him; he listens to the last person who had his ear; he flips and flops on issues like a fish on land. Consider North Korea, where one day he threatened war and the next he praised that country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, as “a smart cookie.”
Here is the main reason Arab leaders should be wary of cuddling too closely with Trump: His presidency is in free fall and the odds are growing by the day that he will be ejected from office in the 2020 elections and possibly sooner. Trump’s approval rating stood at 36% in the most recent Quinnipiac Poll and 56% of respondents said they disapproved of his job as president. And this poll was conducted before Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, who was investigating the Trump campaign’s connections to Russia. Comey’s firing has caused outrage not only among Democrats but among many Republican leaders as well.
On the international stage, Trump has embittered Mexico; alienated German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Europe’s most powerful leader; saw his favoured French candidate, Marine Le Pen, lose in a landslide; and now must deal with a South Korean president who opposes his stance towards Pyongyang.
David Rothkopf, editor of Foreign Policy, wrote on May 10: “Trump is a laughingstock in the best of circumstances, a disgrace based on his known behaviour to date and a threat to global order and security with each action he takes. He discredits the office he holds and the government he leads.”
The Cook Political Report recently increased the odds that Democrats would seize control of both houses of Congress in the 2018 elections. If this happens, expect the impeachment process to begin almost immediately.
Clearly, Arab leaders, like other countries’ leaders, must deal with the American president they have, not the one they want and they are right to try to develop a good working relationship with him, to be gracious and cordial in meetings and to seek common understandings on shared issues.
But Arab leaders need to play the long game. The current US president is increasingly unpopular with the American public and hated by Democrats and by most establishment Republicans, even if they do not all say so publicly.
Arab countries need to build institutional relationships with the United States, not only with government agencies, many of whose bureaucrats and experts will stay in place regardless of who is president, but also with the private sector, civil society organisations and educational institutions.
A bromance with a mercurial president may produce short-term benefits but it is not the way to have a relationship with the United States.