ROME - As President Donald Trump prepared for his audience with the pope Wednesday morning, completing an unprecedented trifecta of visiting the home bases of the world’s major religions in a week, the significance of his first foreign trip is starting to come into focus.
Much that was memorable was said and done by Trump in both Saudi Arabia and Israel, but the most ironic policy shift that may affect us all is a new reliance on the Saudis to help protect us.
As the home country of most of the 9/11 hijackers, and accused of financing a militant brand of Islam around the world, Saudi Arabia is out to clean up its image by embracing a new role tailored to please the United States: operating as a watchtower on alert for Muslim extremism.
On Sunday evening in the Saudi capital Riyadh, Trump, his wife, Melania, and King Salman together pressed down on a large switch that oddly resembled a watermelon. Video screens of varying sizes lit up, and within minutes around 400 Saudi men, in pristine white Arabian garb and headdresses, were gazing at monitors that showed them what was on Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites. Their job, 24/7 at the newly inaugurated Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology, is to spot, record, and respond to radicals using the internet to spread hatred and inspire terrorism.
America’s National Security Agency and CIA try to carry out similar monitoring, but the myriad languages and time zones add up to an unimaginable challenge. Moreover, intelligence agencies concentrate on detecting plans for attacks in Western countries, while the Saudis swear they will push back on the narratives and rumors that terrorist groups use to recruit fighters and suicide bombers.
The traveling White House staff, assiduously trying to keep reporters busy with subjects that have nothing to do with former FBI Director James Comey or Russian election meddling, suggested that Trump’s fortified friendship with the Saudis and other Muslim nations is a big part of fulfilling his campaign promise to make Americans safer.
The staffers revealed that within two weeks the president will unveil a strategy to finish off ISIS. Those vicious terrorists, who seized our attention by beheading Americans and other Westerners in 2014, managed to capture significant parts of Iraq and Syria. Yet now they are being rolled back, in part because Trump gave the Pentagon a green light to do whatever it thought necessary against ISIS without needing to announce details.
Bombings and secret raids by the United States and its allies are taking a huge toll, and the military estimates that nearly 70,000 Islamic State fighters have been killed in the past three years. Every one of them, if somehow let loose with weapons or explosives in any American city, would have been pleased to be a merciless mass killer.
When Trump addresses us on the plan to extinguish the ISIS threat, expect him to claim that his outreach to Sunni Muslim nations prompted palpable changes — such as Saudi Arabia’s apparent enthusiasm in expanding its counter-extremism program. In his speech to leaders of 50 governments gathered in Riyadh, Trump said, “Starving terrorists of their territory, their funding, and the false allure of their craven ideology will be the basis for defeating them.”
An extra plus for America, that almost no one of any political complexion can deny, is the Saudis’ announced intention to spend nearly half a trillion dollars in the next decade on American products and investments. Immediate sales of U.S.-made arms and other defense exports total $110 billion, and Trump clearly enjoyed declaring that the result was “jobs, jobs, jobs.”
His two days with the Israelis and Palestinians could not rival Trump’s weekend in Saudi Arabia when it came to ringing the cash register and strolling in the splendor of fairytale-like palaces. But paying respects at sacred Jewish and Christian sites in the Holy Land had value, also, for the American president’s image.
Wednesday’s meeting at the Vatican can only improve Trump’s relationship with Pope Francis, who said last year that Trump’s desire to build a wall to keep out immigrants coming to the United States illegally was “not Christian.” Expect Trump to seek the pope’s blessing for a very different role Trump wants to play: as a peacemaker in the Middle East.
He is not a man who gets into the nitty-gritty details of these complex issues, but the power of dozens of photo-ops this week is something Trump understands completely.
Dan Raviv is a correspondent for i24News and author of “Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars.”