Lacking a clear understanding of American interests and sporting a gigantic ego, President Donald Trump prioritizes personality over principles and objectives in conducting foreign policy. Now, all presidents attempt to develop a rapport with their international counterparts, but they do so in service of a coherent policy that seeks defined national objectives. In Trump's case, the personal relationship is the sole determinant as to his attitude toward a country or group of countries.
North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un shows up to a summit; Trump praises him and ignores his human rights atrocities. Trump hears criticism from Western European leaders, and a trade war breaks out. Trump judges international relations by whether he thinks the leader “likes” him, a juvenile approach that allows friends and foes to manipulate the narcissistic president. Flattery will get leaders everything they need from this president.
Nowhere has this been more evident than in our dealings with Saudi Arabia, which was the destination of Trump's first presidential trip abroad. There Trump was feted and lauded; in return, Saudi Arabia got an arms deal and a free hand in Yemen. The relationship flowed from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's courtship of Jared Kushner, who seemed to think that the Saudis were going to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.
All of this good cheer and mutual admiration came to a crashing halt with the brutal murder of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi. As Eric Edelman, former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, explained recently on PBS: "I think the administration is trying to get ahead of what will undoubtedly be an important push for sanctions. I'm not sure they're going to be able to get ahead of that, because . . . this is [a] major crisis in the U.S.-Saudi relationship, certainly the biggest one since 9/11." He continued, "If evidence is found that actually links Mohammed bin Salman directly to the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, this will become an existential crisis for this relationship."
Edelman recognizes that MBS might have to go or see his power curtailed. ("There certainly have been historical examples in the past of not just crown princes, but kings being replaced, so that's not unprecedented," Edelman said. "What is unprecedented has been the accumulation of power that Mohammed bin Salman has had in his hands over the last year and a half.") More important from the U.S. perspective is to stop treating the Saudi relationship as simply an outgrowth of Trump's or Kushner's relations with the House of Saud - relations that might be influenced by their financial dealings. Edelman cautions that "although the administration has elevated the relationship with Saudi Arabia since it came in, it has made it a relationship between families, between Jared Kushner and Mohammed bin Salman, between the Al Saud and Trump families." That needs to change. "We need to have a relationship that is institutionalized and based on the state institutions."
This would be equally solid advice for the administration's dealings with other countries. Three changes, at least, would be in order.
First, no more Trump summits, certainly no more one-on-one summits. We have no idea what Trump is saying or promising in private conversations with our most dangerous foes, nor any idea what our opponents' expectations going forward might be. Only the dictators gain from these situations; they get a PR bonanza and the stamp of legitimacy without giving up anything.
Second, Congress needs to start exercising proper oversight. What is our Iran policy? Why are we still backing the Saudis' war in Yemen? The administration might be incoherent, but Congress, especially the Senate, is asleep at the wheel.
Finally, it's long past time for Congress to reclaim its authority over tariffs. Trump's ignorance of basic economics and simple trade concepts is alarming; his personal pique at various leaders can have serious ramifications. The president exploited a "national security" loophole to justify a fruitless confrontation with allies; he is now engaged in a trade war with China that shows no sign of abating and might threaten the economic recovery. Congress has given up its authority; it must snatch it back, do a full evaluation of trade relations and wind down counterproductive trade wars.
In sum, the time for Trump’s improvising is over. Our foreign policy needs a lot less Trump glad-handing and much more congressional oversight. Only then can we understand exactly what damage the administration has done and how to clean up its serial messes.
Jennifer Rubin writes reported opinion from a center-right perspective for The Washington Post. @JRubinBlogger