donald trump mahmoud abbas may 3 2017 01
Trump says Mideast peace is possible
02:15 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and author of “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.” Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. Follow him @aarondmiller2. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

CNN  — 

Donald Trump departs later this week on a whirlwind trip that will take him to the Middle East and to Europe for meetings with Pope Francis, NATO and the G7.

In comparison with that of his immediate predecessor, Trump’s first foreign foray is not only late but also stands in stark contrast to President Barack Obama’s early trips to Canada, Britain, Germany and France.

In keeping with his precedent-crushing presidency, this road trip is a veritable extravaganza designed to cram as much pageantry, showmanship, big stage photo-ops and perhaps some serious business into a jam-packed itinerary.

So what does Trump – beleaguered at home – hope to accomplish on his first trip abroad?

Change the channel

The trip was scheduled well before Trump’s current travails over the firing of FBI Director James Comey, but it now offers a welcome respite and a way to change the channel, however briefly.

That’s become a lot harder now, following reports of Trump’s alleged divulging of highly sensitive and classified information to a smiling Russian foreign minister last week. The President will now face allies and partners who will wonder even more about his reliability and credibility. Given that sources have told news networks – including CNN – that some the information was from Israeli intelligence, he’ll have to do some fence-mending in Israel. But Netanyahu may well see some political advantage in giving Mr Trump the benefit of the doubt.

There’s a certain irony in the fact that Trump is seeking relief from his domestic troubles by plunging into the cruel and unforgiving world that America confronts abroad, particularly the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a good many skeptical allies.

Still, foreign policy has always offered presidents an opportunity to strut on the international stage and revel in the independence they have on national security issues.

In June 1974, a mere two months before he resigned, Richard Nixon embarked on a whirlwind Middle East trip to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and Israel.

Assuming Trump avoids any significant self-inflicted gaffes or stumbles, the trip might provide a way to rise – at least temporarily – above the political muck and fray by meeting with American allies and talking resolutely about matters of war and peace.

US Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster looks on as US President Donald Trump announces him as his national security adviser at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, on February 20, 2017.
McMaster: Trump unaware of intel source
00:54 - Source: CNN

Given that his first two stops are Saudi Arabia and Israel, that he is meeting with NATO and that only this weekend we saw a ballistic missile launch by North Korea, Trump will have plenty of opportunity to do precisely that.

Should he come up with a choice for FBI director before departing that defuses the opposition, he’ll get something of a breather. Still, his foreign counterparts can only wonder how effective he is going to be as a foreign policy president as his credibility and effectiveness at home seems bollixed up in controversy and possible scandal.

Avoid Obama’s Middle East stumbles

In Trump land, all roads – taken or not – begin with an effort to draw sharp differences with his predecessor. Though this isn’t unique to the Trump administration, the “I’m doing it my way” trope is something of a passion with the President. And nowhere will that be clearer than in Trump’s first two stops in Saudi Arabia and Israel.

First, he will be carrying a much tougher position on Iran than Obama – a change that is delighting both the Saudis and Israelis.

Second, Trump won’t be skipping Israel – as Obama did on his first Middle East trip. Indeed, he will giving a major speech to the Muslim world in Saudi Arabia and a major address in Israel at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Making Saudi Arabia his first foreign stop is clearly designed to dispel the idea that Trump is anti-Muslim.

Reassure but press US allies

If Trump is serious about moving the Israeli-Palestinian issue forward, his first two stops won’t be all smiles. He’s hoping he can use his tough position on Iran as a way to get the Gulf Arabs to reach out to Israel and press the Palestinians – and as result, get the Israelis to make some concessions.

This is going to be a tough sell. It’s not at all clear that the United States will be willing to take the anti-Iranian steps the Saudis want: confronting Iran and President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

Nor is it clear that Riyadh is prepared to take meaningful steps without significant Israeli concessions. Obama got nowhere with the Saudis on these confidence-building measures, even though he sold more arms to Saudi Arabia than his predecessors.

Trump’s Israel visit may prove even more complicated. On the surface, it may be a love fest. No president has ever visited Israel this early in his term. Trump will also be the first sitting US President to visit the Western Wall. And if Trump asks for it, he may succeed in getting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas into their first public meeting since 2010.

But Netanyahu is nervous about what else Trump may be planning amid reports that the administration is thinking about endorsing self-determination for the Palestinians (code for Palestinian statehood) and that the President’s men are listening too closely to former Israeli peace process negotiator Tzipi Livni.

Whatever else Trump may not know about Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, he almost certainly understands that unless he presses Netanyahu for concessions, there’s no chance for progress, let alone a chance for his “ultimate deal.”

‘America First’ doesn’t mean America only

The trip will also – whether intended or not – have one other consequence. Trump’s conception of “America First” might have been easily interpreted to mean that US foreign policy would morph into America acting unilaterally without the need for allies or partners.

Yet from beginning to end, this foreign foray has some variation of alliance politics written all over it. Indeed, maybe the new mantra ought to be “America Dependent.”

Trump can’t make Israeli-Palestinian peace alone. He can’t defeat ISIS and keep it from returning in another form alone. Nor can he contain or dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program alone. He will conclude his trips participating in a NATO meeting, an alliance he once decried.

All of the foreign policy issues on Trump’s plate are long-term headaches requiring management and not leaving much opportunity for historic resolution.

Indeed, no matter who had been elected president, the world beyond America’s shores is a world to be transacted with, not transformed. And Trump’s first foreign trip is likely to be a reality check.

To have any hope of managing this unruly world, he’s going to require a good deal of help from nations he likes and from those he doesn’t.