Both allies and enemies alike of Donald Trump are bracing themselves this week for foreign policy bombshells dropped by a furious US President lashing out over his election defeat.
While Trump wages a legal fight at home over what he falsely alleges is election fraud, he announced a precipitous drawdown of US troops in Afghanistan, recklessly fulfilling a campaign promise.
The Afghan government fears the move puts their country in danger of being overrun by the Taliban, while even some in the President’s own party have questioned his intent. Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger condemned the order as “an attempt to hobble the next administration.”
Kinzinger, a former US airman who flew combat missions in Afghanistan, warned that those troops who remain can do little except protect themselves. “With 2,500 troops all you have left is enough troops to defend the remaining troops,” he told CNN’s New Day on Wednesday.
Meanwhile in Iraq, where Trump has also ordered a drawdown of troops, talks between the US general in charge of coalition forces and the Iraqi government over how and when to do that are slowed by Iraqi concerns of security implications.
Anticipation of what Trump might do next is building toward the weekend when Saudi Arabia hosts the G20 summit of the world’s top economic powers in the Kingdom’s futuristic city in the making, Neom.
Trump is spared the humiliation of being paraded as a loser in person in front of other world leaders, with the summit being held virtually due to Covid-19 pandemic. It’s not even clear yet if he will even speak by videolink, although Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will be there.
A virtual summit is not what Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, usually known by his initials MBS, and his elderly father King Salman would have liked. Despite MBS’s bad rap over his rapid consolidation of power and, according to the CIA, responsibility for the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi (an allegation consistently denied by the Saudis), Saudi Arabia under his de facto leadership has made progress on many fronts.
MBS has sidelined the religious police, paving the way for previously illegal music concerts, and he’s relaxed guardianship laws over women, giving them the right to drive. The G20 would have been a major opportunity for MBS to showcase these changes and airbrush his image, so tarnished around the world.
With Joe Biden on the way to the White House, even more change may be coming, one senior Saudi diplomat told CNN some prisoners including Canadian-educated women’s rights activist Loujain Alhathloul could be released.
But concerns in the region are mounting that Trump, who bragged to biographer Bob Woodward that he “saved his [MBS’s] ass” following Khashoggi’s murder, may be about to deliver the royal family another favor. This could be a move to designate the Saudis’ enemies in Yemen – the Houthis – a terrorist organization, boxing in Biden’s leverage over Saudi and further complicating his dealings with Iran.
The Houthis ousted the inept but internationally recognized democratically elected Yemeni government in 2015 and have been locked in a war with the Saudis since. Saudi fighter pilots chasing Houthi targets have killed civilians; in response the Houthis have fired Iranian-made cruise missiles at the densely populated Saudi capital Riyadh and other cities. So far US-made Patriot missile batteries have neutralized most of the threats.
In Yemen aid workers already fearing famine for much of the impoverished population believe the US move to designate Houthis as terrorists puts many more lives at risk through additional food, fuel and cash shortages.
Jan Egland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, which has aid workers in Yemen, said: “We strongly urge the US government to ensure that any designation in Yemen includes an unambiguous General License that safeguards humanitarian work and allows us to do our jobs.”
The Saudis may be disappointed though, if the summit’s joint communique is scaled down due to difficulties of meeting during the pandemic.
Tackling Covid-19 and its economic impact, as well as climate change, are among some of the summit’s stated goals – both signature failings of Trump’s leadership. The US leads the world on coronavirus infection rates and deaths, while the President has in the past refused to sign G20 communiques until language on climate change was watered down or removed.
But even if he declines to show his face – even virtually – at the summit, that’s no guarantee controversy will be avoided, with Pompeo present in person to push through his boss’s sometimes unpopular wishes.
The question on the minds of G20 leaders this weekend will be how much damage Trump might do on his administration’s last big international outing.