President Donald Trump wants the countries in NATO and U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf to step up their military might, and that’s the predominant message he'll carry with him throughout the eight-day, five-stop foreign trip he’s embarking on starting Friday.
“The United States has shouldered too much of the burden for too long,” a senior administration official said this week to preview the trip.
That belief extends from U.S. defense spending, which exceeds that of the other major powers he'll meet with by at least a factor of 10, to its leadership in the fight against ISIS, to its troop presence in Afghanistan, and to its innovation in counterterrorism efforts.
For the new commander in chief to get his message to yield any tangible defense results, experts say he first must erase the cloud of uncertainty that has characterized his approach to foreign policy among the counterparts he'll meet over the next week and a half. And he'll have an experience opposite of what former President Barack Obama might have had along the same stops: President Trump is unpopular in Europe but beloved in the Gulf.
His adventure begins Saturday in Riyadh, and that's where he can hope for an auspicious start.
Ilan Goldenberg, Senior Fellow and Director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, said in a briefing this week, “At least in the Gulf, President Trump is incredibly popular. They love him.”
There, he'll meet with King Salman, announce the beginnings of a massive arms sales deal, and deliver a speech on his approach to combating religious extremism.
“He will be very blunt in need to confront extremism,” the administration official said, adding that Trump will say the Gulf countries “need to do more, spend more, act more” when it comes to fighting extremist ideology and guaranteeing their own security.
Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will announce a major tranche of arm sales to the Saudis the State Department will oversee, but former officials and even current officials in Foggy Bottom say it's far from complete and that the size of the deal may shrink considerably.
“One of the critical shifts that is likely to come out of this announcement is that the U.S. has long pressed Saudi Arabia to improve the quality of its naval forces in the Gulf, to basically be more of a counter to what is Iran's major areas of buildup,” said Anthony Cordesman, the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
While intensifying the fight against ISIS and navigating the war in Yemen will place high on the agenda, curbing Iran's power is an issue on which Trump can separate himself from his predecessor and possibly build momentum.
Steven A. Cook, Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said, “Governments remain enthusiastic about him, particularly in the Gulf because of his rhetorical hardline on the Iranians. And they want to ensure that they have good relations with a president that they believe finally understands what the real threat is.”
The uncertainty for those who receive Trump may not set in until he arrives in Israel on Monday.
He's due to deliver another big speech there, and he's shown an interest in helping to broker a peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians.
The problem for the ultimate negotiator, said Robert Danin, Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, “is the lack of clarity about what is it that the president really seeks to do other than produce a deal.”
Danin continued, “ambiguity leads to a lot of uncertainty, leads to a lot of speculation and anxiety. And so in such a policy vacuum which we, you know, now have, there is a tremendous amount of anxiety.”
Making matters worse, the president reportedly shared highly classified intelligence with Russian officials in an Oval Office meeting last week that Israelis had provided to the United States without granting permission to share it.
In an interview with the Times of Israel this week, Shabtai Shavit, who led the Israeli spy agency Mossad in the 1990s, said, “If tomorrow I were asked to pass information to the CIA, I would do everything I could to not pass it to them.”
The sentiment will increase when he gets to Brussels later in the week, when he'll meet with European Union officials before sitting down to dinner with heads of state of NATO member countries.
In addition to noting how remarkably disliked the president is in Europe, Jeffrey Rathke, CSIS's Senior Fellow and Deputy Director of its Europe Program, pointed out, “the administration has not yet articulated any kind of agenda for the relationship with the European Union. This is a big, glaring hole in their policy toward major partners. And so this meeting may be an opportunity to start setting some direction on that.”
There's even a trace of disinterest by some Trump officials in the EU as well.
“We know that the administration has asked ambassadors here in town when they are leaving the European Union, to their shock and horror,” said Julianne Smith, CNAS's Senior Fellow and Director of the Transatlantic Security Program.
Smith cited the German ambassador as a recipient of the request, but a German official denied it occurred, even though other ambassadors allegedly have had to field the same question from White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon. Sources say they fear White House retribution, with one noting, “Everyone's on pins and needles.”
During every meeting Trump has in Brussels, Smith said he can expect to hear, “strategic ambiguity is not working for us.” Instead, she said, Europeans “are looking to these meetings for clarity on U.S. policy towards the transatlantic relationship.”
In addition to clarity, European leaders look to the United States for leadership in counterterrorism ideas, but Smith reminded that they're still waiting “because our administration has not been staffed yet and this summit has come up quickly, we don't have a lot to show for it.”
NATO leaders, with whom he'll dine on Thursday night, are still waiting to hear whether Trump backs the key clause of its founding treaty, Article 5, which states that an attack on one is an attack on all 29 of its member countries.
Trump's lieutenants, like Vice President Mike Pence and Defense Secretary James Mattis, have backed the clause. The president himself had wiped away some of the apprehension rippling throughout NATO's ranks with his comments last month that he no longer views the alliance as obsolete.
“I think that's been thrown in the wastebin because they've just seen him do something crazy and they saw the reaction out of Washington,” CNAS's James Townsend said. “So I think for some of the heads of state in government who will show up in that room, they don't know what they're going to hear from him.”
Townsend was referring to Trump's decision to fire FBI Director James Comey. But the president starts in an even deeper hole after sharing sensitive intelligence the United States received from Israel with the Russians and then for allegedly asking Comey to lay off the investigation into his fired national security advisor, Michael Flynn.
In a twist of irony, a top item on the agenda is for NATO country leaders to discuss how they can improve intelligence sharing.
NATO efforts in Afghanistan also are likely to arise. And Trump is mulling a major troop increase to break a stalemate at the urging of the U.S. general overseeing the mission, and that may require help across the board. NATO has been a key presence there since the mission began, but Trump may need to ask for an increase.
What wasn't present when the mission began, Townsend said, was a resurgent and aggressive Russia in Eastern Europe, which requires the attention of European troops. A surge in Afghanistan would force European military efforts to divide their efforts.
And so, he warned, the heads of state gathered at NATO “have got to be assured that there is a strategy that's connected with this ask. And the problem that Trump has now given to this whole ask is he doesn't seem to have a strategy about much of anything.”
Indeed, reporters in Washington attending a slew of briefings on the president's trip this week seemed most focused on the cloud that Comey's firing would cast over the trip and whether the infamous freewheeling Trump would go off-script.