PARIS—The trip was planned long before the rapid-fire revelations of the last week that have Washington talking about impeachment and reminiscing endlessly about the good-old bad-old days of Watergate.
But, as with so much in the Trump administration, the optic is terrible. Just as President Donald Trump sets off to visit the Middle East and Europe on what was supposed to be a triumphant foreign tour, well, one can’t help but note the parallels with Richard Nixon’s trip to the Middle East and Europe in June 1974, mere weeks before he felt compelled to resign.
Of course, Nixon’s demise came long before the rise of Twitter, but had such a medium been available as he fled the furor in Washington for the admiring crowds across the Atlantic, his message might have been much the same as Trump’s good-morning tweet on Thursday: “This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!”
Actually, Nixon’s problems were considerably greater than Trump’s as he boarded Air Force One for his visit to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Belgium, among other venues. By June 1974, most of Nixon’s inner circle had been indicted. He’d been forced to release incriminating tape recordings made secretly in the Oval Office (which does have a familiar ring), and impeachment hearings were under way in the House. We’re still a long way from that in Trump’s case.
The greatest difference, however, is that most of the world leaders Nixon was dealing with had known him for a long time, had taken his measure, and realized that while he might occasionally play the madman for political or diplomatic effect, he was not insane. He certainly made mistakes, but overall he was considered competent.
Many of the leaders Trump will be meeting over the coming week, from Saudi royals to Israel’s prime minister, Pope Francis, and the newly elected president of France, have justifiable reasons to doubt both Trump’s foreign policy acumen and his mental acuity, defined as memory, focus, concentration, and understanding.
The grandiose pretensions of Trump’s program are extraordinary. Trump’s embattled national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, told reporters last Friday, “This trip is truly historic. No president has ever visited the homelands and holy sites of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths all on one trip,” then added, “What President Trump is seeking is to unite peoples of all faiths around a common vision of peace, progress, and prosperity.”
A noble sentiment, to be sure. But while it’s doubtful even Trump will tell Jews how to be Jews or Pope Francis how to be a Christian, the White House agenda informs us he’ll be lecturing Muslims, whom he had hoped to ban en masse from the United States, “on the need to confront radical ideology and [his] hopes for a peaceful vision of Islam.”
According to McMaster, “the president’s leadership has been welcomed—welcomed enthusiastically,” because of “a perception that America had largely disengaged from the Middle East in particular, and that disengagement coincided with this humanitarian and political catastrophe in the region.”
And there is definitely some truth to that. But his interlocutors all have their own ideas about what that engagement should mean.
For the Saudis, clearly, the goal is to enlist the United States as a firm partner in the campaign they hope to mount to isolate, pressure, and—if the rhetoric of Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is to believed—perhaps wage war inside Iran.
“We know we are a major target for the Iranian regime,” MBS, as he’s called, told the Saudi television network Al-Arabiya earlier this month. “Reaching the Muslims’ qibla [Mecca] is a major aim for the Iranian regime. We will not wait until the battle is in Saudi Arabia but we will work so the battle is there in Iran and not in Saudi Arabia.”
Iran, as it happens, holds presidential elections on Friday, and may return the relatively moderate, avuncular, business-oriented Hassan Rouhani to office for another term, or possibly elect the much more hardline Ebrahim Raeesi, who has been implicated in one of Iran’s most infamous human rights atrocities.
But MBS says these leaders are chosen in a partially rigged system (as opposed to Saudi leaders, who are not elected at all) and he says they are such radical religious fanatics (a charge often leveled at the Wahabi sect that dominates Saudi Arabia) that there’s no way to talk to them. It should be noted that MBS, the son of the fading King Salman, is widely viewed as the real power shaping and driving Saudi policy, and already he has met privately with Trump in Washington.
So the Saudis have pulled together a Sunni Arab military alliance commanded by a Pakistani general who once held the key to his country’s nuclear arsenal, and they clearly hope that massive arms purchases from the United States will help win Washington’s support, in various ways, for their struggle against Tehran.
But—when the deadline came up this week for the Trump administration to waive some sanctions against Iran as part of the nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration, which Trump denounced countless times on the campaign trail, his government went ahead and waived them. Other sanctions may be imposed because of Iran’s missile program, but it hardly looks like the Trump administration is preparing to take the war to Tehran.
Then again, everyone has learned that the Trump administration is not the same as Trump. Just ask the Israelis, who shared ultra-sensitive intelligence with the administration only to have Trump himself treat it like a boast in Mar-a-Lago locker room when chatting with the Russian foreign minister.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been trying since the George W. Bush administration to lead the United States into a war with Iran, can expect to hear many encouraging words from the man now at the helm in Washington. As the White House statement on the trip declared, Trump and Bibi plan to discuss “the need to counter the threats posed by Iran and its proxies,” and, oh yeah, “by ISIS and other terror groups,” and, last and least, “ways to advance a genuine and lasting peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.”
Then it’s on to Rome, to meet The Pontiff, who has very little good to say about The Donald, whether Trump is banning immigrants and refugees or helping to destroy the environment.
At a summit in Brussels, the American president will have a chance once again to deny everything he said about NATO being obsolete, or his support for Brexit, or his sympathy with European politicians like French presidential loser Marine Le Pen who want to blow the European Union apart.
Trump’s one-on-one working lunch with the new French president, Emmanuel Macron, on Thursday should be interesting. It will pit the aging reality TV star against a man more than 20 years younger who is emerging as the leader of a rational, centrist movement in France and Europe.
Then it’s off to the G-7 meeting in Taormina, Sicily, where Trump also is expected to experience some high culture, a concert in the shadow of erupting Mt. Etna.
At the end, at the airbase in Sicily where Trump will take off for America once again, he is supposed to speak to “American and Allied servicemen and their families, recapping highlights and accomplishments of the trip.”
Perhaps he can borrow a line or two from Nixon in 1974: “It is always good to come home to America,” said Nixon. “That is particularly so when one comes home from a journey that has advanced the cause of peace in the world.”
One month and five days later, Nixon delivered his resignation speech. “I have never been a quitter,” he declared, and then quit he did.