Before the daily deluge of Washington political news re-mires us in short-term minutiae, let’s examine President Donald Trump’s first foreign trip and behavior in his debut on the world stage.
Despite critics’ self-serving hand-wringing and two weeks of bad domestic news before takeoff, Trump acted like a competent, fairly conventional traveling president. When any U.S. leader, his planes, aides, media entourage, motorcades and security forces land anywhere abroad, it’s like an elephant dropping in for tea and crushing the antique chairs.
But look, the U.S. embassy was not abruptly moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Trump didn’t suddenly terminate involvement in the Paris climate accord – yet. He didn’t rip up President Barack Obama’s misbegotten nuclear deal with Iran.
What the American did do was somehow collect more than 50 Sunni leaders in Riyadh to unify around an anti-Islamic State campaign. In an unapologetic speech announcing America was back as an important player in that troubled region, the man who once proposed banning all Muslim immigrants said:
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“This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects or different civilizations. This is a battle between those who seek to obliterate human life and those who seek to protect it. This is a battle between good and evil.”
Underlining the new administration’s heightened aggressiveness, U.S. Central Command released statistics showing that from January through April, the U.S.-led coalition dropped about 50 percent more munitions on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria than in the same period last year. Commanders have been given much greater battlefield decision-making leeway than under Obama’s time-consuming, tight constraints, which often ran all the way back to the White House.
Trump has dispatched more advisers and is directly arming the most effective Kurdish fighters. The strategy under Trump and Defense Secretary James Mattis, a blunt Marine general, involves encircling Islamic State forces rather than head-on assaults that allow fighters to flee.
As a welcome sign of a broader regional commitment to the anti-terror struggle, Saudi Arabia has even volunteered to contribute troops to the Islamic State fight, an offer rejected outright by Obama. The Institute for the Study of War warns, however, that as the Islamic State loses strongholds, it will seek to foment scattered terror attacks as far away as Russia, Pakistan, the Philippines and Bangladesh.
Even the symbolic structure of Trump’s opening foreign foray was refreshing. First stops were the capitals of three major religions – Riyadh, Jerusalem and the Vatican, plus meeting again with the Palestinian president in Bethlehem. Not bad for a Presbyterian.
Then came NATO.
Trump’s rhetorical history with NATO is spotted. Perhaps as part of a deal-making strategy, he was a year ago saying the 68-year-old alliance had become obsolete. He’s since recanted. Not recanted, however, is the president’s ongoing, outspoken insistence that 23 of the soon-to-be-29 members start living up to their unfulfilled defense-spending obligations. Trump sent Vice President Mike Pence to deliver this message days after the inauguration.
Trump redelivered that message on behalf of American taxpayers in rather blunt language at a NATO ceremony in Brussels. “Over the last eight years,” the president declared, “the United States spent more on defense than all other NATO countries combined. If all NATO members had spent just 2 percent of their GDP on defense last year, we would have had another $119 billion for our collective defense and for the financing of additional NATO reserves.”
Trump also wants to see NATO nations do more to combat terrorism beyond their own borders. French special operators, for instance, are training Iraqi troops on assassinating Islamic State leaders in Mosul, especially if they are French nationals who might be tempted to take the fight home.
But wary of another long-term military commitment like Afghanistan, NATO members are more likely to help with training local forces and other low-profile activities.
Mattis, who’s overseeing the Islamic State fight, discussed the trip on a Sunday show the other day and revealed the new administration’s attitude toward enemies. He was asked what has in recent years of terrorist incidents become a standard media question designed to elicit a list of scary, possibly headline-making things. What keeps you up at night?
“Nothing,” replied the general. “I keep other people awake at night.”
The writer is an author and veteran national and foreign correspondent covering politics since the 1960s. Follow him @AHMalcolm.