WASHINGTON—For once, the problem was not something he said but something he didn’t.
Donald Trump’s first foreign trip as president gave him a chance to make headlines on something, anything, other than Russia. He succeeded for a few days. Then, with an act of conspicuous silence, he changed the subject back.
In his Thursday speech to NATO, Trump declined to guarantee that his United States remains devoted to the bedrock principle of the bulwark against Russian aggression: a commitment to defend other members of the alliance if they came under attack.
His refusal to endorse the all-for-one, one-for-all Article 5 of the NATO treaty, while hectoring members for spending too little on defence and too much on a new headquarters, alarmed and dismayed European leaders who had expected him to come to Brussels to reassure the alliance. And given that his omission doubtlessly thrilled Vladimir Putin, it reinvigorated bipartisan questions about where his loyalties lie.
“That he couldn’t even say some very benign words that would’ve meant a lot to our allies was really striking,” said Loren Schulman, a former National Security Council official who is now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “I think it’s a huge deal that he didn’t say it.”
The NATO omission — it was at, of all places, the dedication of a memorial to the time NATO invoked Article 5 after Sept. 11 — was the biggest black mark on an eventful, five-country whirlwind tour. The trip was far from a shining success, but also no catastrophe.
Here are six other lessons from Trump’s time in the Middle East and Europe:
He’s not giving Israel free rein: Aaron David Miller, a former diplomat who advised six secretaries of state on Arab-Israeli negotiations, jokes that the version of Trump who spoke about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before March of last year “could have been Hillary Clinton’s secretary of state.”
Trump shifted well to the right during his campaign, giving a zealously pro-Israel campaign speech to a hard-line lobby group
But the old Trump has emerged again.
Appearing serious about his desire to make “the ultimate deal,” he played the role of honest broker, even in the presence of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
He did not mention his promise to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. He declared the Palestinians “ready to reach for peace,” a conclusion rejected by much of the Israeli government. He linked the conflict to broader problems in the region, an analysis that irks conservative Israelis.
Netanyahu was visibly elated to be dealing with someone other than Barack Obama — more relaxed, Miller said, than he had ever been in the presence of a president.
But there were hints that the happy vibes would not last.
“I think the Israelis were very happy with Trump’s visit. They were very happy with his speech, but, if you listened carefully to what he said, there are a lot of things I think the Israeli government is going to be very nervous about,” said Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights.
The Sunni side is up: Trump made it clear that he will not play middle-of-the-road mediator on the region’s other defining battle: the power struggle between Saudi Arabia, run by a Sunni Muslim regime, and Iran, run by a Shiite Muslim regime.
The U.S. is now firmly aligned with the Sunnis.
Speaking in Saudi Arabia to a gathering of Sunni-nation leaders, Trump blasted Iran — it did this the day after Iran held a presidential election, which Saudi Arabia has never done — while heaping praise on the Saudi king and avoiding criticism of the other equally repressive men who sat before him.
The world’s Muslim population is 90 per cent Sunni, and there are good arguments in favour of a pivot toward Riyadh and its friends.
But “the president’s speech overdid it,” Miller said.
“We cannot overdo it.”
He just can’t control himself: Trump earned some cautious early praise for displaying something that resembled discipline. Dodging almost any interaction with the media — in a break from trip precedent — Trump jettisoned his usual improvisation in favour of prepared texts obviously written by other people.
But he made outlandish errors whenever he was allowed to speak in his own words.
In a ridiculous goof in Israel, he accidentally confirmed that Israel was the source of the classified intelligence he divulged to Russian officials. In a meeting with European leaders, he called Germans “bad,” possibly in the context of trade, but still creating an embarrassing headline in Der Spiegel. In his speech at NATO headquarters, he ad-libbed a mocking jibe about the cost of that very building.
Sure, he managed to prevent himself from rage-tweeting. But there is no stopping the man from falling on his face over any extended period.
He was persuaded to soften on Islam: When word got out that the politician who campaigned on banning foreign Muslims would be giving a speech on Islam in Saudi Arabia, there was real and reasonable fear that he would create a dangerous international incident.
He did not.
In fact, he rejected the very premise of the inflammatory phrase he had insisted Obama use: “radical Islamic terrorism.”
Trump snuck in a modified version, unscripted. But in his prepared text, he rejected the very premise of the phrase — saying that terrorists are “barbaric criminals” who “falsely” invoke the name of God, not true Islamic believers.
Nobody believes Trump has come to like Muslims; while he was away, he issued an insulting terrorism-centric Ramadan statement. But this was a sign that cooler administration heads, such as National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, might prevail over the Islamophobic nationalists.
“With expectations being so low, we were pleasantly surprised by the fact that he didn’t insult 1.7 billion people in Saudi Arabia,” Munayyer said.
Human rights? Out the window: Trump is awkward around the leaders of liberal democracies, displaying a mix of disinterest, contempt and confusion. Around autocrats such as Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, whom he pronounced “wise,” he becomes a fawning child, admiring, not condemning, their absolute power.
When Trump told an audience of undemocratic rulers that he was “not here to lecture,” the message was clear: as long as these men help kill terrorists, the U.S. no longer cares a whit about how they handle human rights and civil liberties.
It was not a total fiasco: There were substantive gaffes. There were silly gaffes. There was an inexplicable shove of a prime minister. There was an inexplicable photo with a glowing orb. So let’s not drop the bar so far that we pretend the trip was an unequivocal success.
But it also wasn’t an abject, on-all-counts disaster, and the bar has fallen to a place where that is notable.
The Trump team, best known for public incompetence, managed to do some complicated things well.
“It went off relatively seamlessly given the potential minefields and traps,” Miller said, speaking after the Middle East portion.
It did, however, get transparently worse as it proceeded. Schulman said she saw a “big divide” in the level of preparation the administration devoted to the made-for-TV first stops, in Saudi Arabia and Israel, and the subsequent European portion in which Trump “seemed tired, annoyed, and like he was relying on his stock campaign lines.”
In his speech in Saudi Arabia last Sunday, he paid tribute to the “magnificent kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” In his speech in Italy on Saturday, he referred to Canada’s prime minister as “Justin from Canada.”