After meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the White House next week, President Donald J. Trump will embark on his first international trip on May 19, with stops in Saudi Arabia and Israel. Panelists on this on-the-record teleconference discussed the significance of the president's visit and his objectives in the region, particularly as they pertain to the fight against the self-declared Islamic State and forging a peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
SCHMEMANN: Thank you. And good morning, everyone, and thank you for joining us at this Council on Foreign Relations on-the-record news call. We’re going to be discussing today President Trump’s agenda in the Middle East, including his visit this week with Turkish leader Erdoğan and his upcoming visit, which will include stops in Saudi Arabia and Israel.
I’m delighted to be joined by three colleagues this morning who are going to help us discuss these issues: Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of a forthcoming book titled “Realism and Democracy: American Foreign Policy after the Arab Spring”; Steven Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies here at CFR and is the author of a new book, “False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East”; and Robert Danin, senior fellow for Middle East Studies at CFR. We’re delighted to have the three of you joining us this morning.
Just before we begin, a reminder that this is an on-the-record call and that there many resources available on the Council on Foreign Relations website, www.cfr.org. So I encourage anyone who would like more information to take advantage of all that the website offers.
Well, let’s kick off with Steven Cook and discuss Turkey-U.S. relations, which have been a little rocky as of late. There was some hope that President Trump would get along with Turkey or Erdoğan. And indeed, Erdoğan seems to have high hopes for his meeting this week at the White House. President Trump recently congratulated Erdoğan on his referendum but has recently also announced the U.S. will arm Kurdish fighters in Syria, which Turkey very much opposes. Steve, what can we expect from the face-to-face meeting between these two leaders this week?
COOK: Well, thanks very much, Anya, and thanks for everybody who’s called in.
President Erdoğan comes to Washington with three priorities. The first is—regards this question of arming the YPG. The second is the extradition of Fethullah Gülen, the Turkish cleric in residence in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, who’s also a green card holder and has been in the United States since 1999. Fethullah Gülen, for those who are not as familiar with him, leads a kind of broad social religious movement and who was a partner of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party for the better part of 10 years. Those two leaders have fallen out. And President Erdoğan blames Fethullah Gülen for the failed July 15th coup.
The third big issue on Erdoğan’s agenda is a case that’s pending in court in New York state, what’s called the Reza Zarrab case. Reza-Zarrab is an Iranian-Turkish businessman. He is being—he is being held for trial, which is supposed to start in August in New York, over busting sanctions on Iran. Why this is important to President Erdoğan is because Zarrab was mostly busting Iran sanctions from Istanbul and was deeply involved with the Turkish political leadership and is believed to know everything that there is to know about corruption among senior officials in the Turkish government, including Erdoğan’s family.
And then there is a possible fourth priority for President Erdoğan, which is to—a commitment from the United States to boost trade and investment between the two countries.
Obviously, of all of these, the biggest one, as Anya alluded to, is the U.S. decision to arm the YPG, otherwise known as the People’s Protection Units. From the perspective of the Turks, the People’s Protection Units are no different from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, otherwise known as the PKK, a terrorist organization that has been waging war against the Turkish state since 1984. This is, from the Turkish perspective, as if the Turks were helping to arm some offshoot of al-Qaida. The fact of the matter is, is that the Turks have helped arm some offshoot of al-Qaida in Syria, called Jabhat al-Nusra. But they don’t see it that way. They see this as the United States siding with terrorists and midwifing a terrorist state on Turkey’s border.
I think that President Erdoğan is hopeful about his face-to-face meeting with President Trump because he believes he can change President Trump’s mind on this issue. Before leaving Turkey for a meeting with the Chinese and Russian presidents, he indicated in press statements that he believed that the YPG policy is a holdover of the Obama administration. It was a decision that was made by people who had served President Obama and that President Erdoğan was hopeful that he could make it clearer to President Trump why this order that President Trump has signed is wrongheaded.
From the U.S. side, the secretary of defense, James Mattis, has said that we are going to arm the YPG but that we can work it out, that is, that Turkey and the United States can work it out. A lot of things happen in war, and as a result, there is a way to come together on this and reassure the Turks. And what Mattis means by reassuring the Turks is that the United States is prepared to reassure Ankara on its fight against the PKK and provide capabilities to the Turkish military in the fight against the PKK.
All that being said, with all of those assurances, the Turks don’t trust the United States at all on this issue or on too many other issues. And one can expect that regardless of what U.S. officials say about assurances on the PKK and the YPG, the Turks are not going to come off of their view that there is no difference between the YPG and the PKK, and in that, they would be—they would be correct. So I think there is going to be significant tension between the two governments over that.
I don’t think it’s going to blow up the meeting while President Erdoğan is here. He wants—as I indicated, he wants people to believe that the tension in the relationship was a function of the Obama administration and that what people have hearing about Erdoğan—particularly since the April 16 referendum, which he likely lost—but he wants people in Washington, where the Turks believe they’re getting unfair hearing, to believe that he can be a constructive ally.
All that being said, if he doesn’t get the kinds of change that he wants in U.S. policy, it’s likely that Erdoğan will raise the stakes with the United States, continue the tough rhetoric about arming the YPG, and, in fact, potentially continue military operations against the YPG, which have been going on for the last couple of months.
I’ll stop there, and we can move on to the president’s foreign trip. Thank you very much.
SCHMEMANN: Thank you, Steven Cook.
And yes, let’s turn to the president’s upcoming trip. Elliott Abrams, the first stop on the first trip for President Trump is going to be Saudi Arabia. And so I’m curious about what does that mean, what is the symbolism of that, why Saudi Arabia is the first stop for the first trip. And it sounds like the president has a busy agenda in Saudi Arabia, several meetings, including a summit with Arab and Muslim nations, where the president hopes to enhance ties and promote U.S.-Arab cooperation. So, Elliott, what is—what is the president’s agenda in Saudi Arabia? And what might you expect from that summit?
ABRAMS: Hi, good morning.
First, I think it is striking that the president during his campaign made it—made it pretty clear that he’d like to get out of these wars in the broader Middle East, but—and pay attention to nation-building at home while his first stop is the Middle East, his first foreign trip is the Middle East. Previous presidents have gone to Canada or Mexico first since Jimmy Carter, everyone since Jimmy Carter, Canada or Mexico. Carter went to Europe first. So this is—this is a first, to put the Middle East on the top of the agenda and make it the first trip.
And just one small note about that: It’ll be interesting to see when he takes off from Saudi Arabia whether he needs to make believe he’s flying to Jordan. And the reason I say that is I’ve been on flights with Secretary of State Rice that went from Israel to Saudi Arabia, and we had to—we had to almost land at Queen Alia Airport in Amman to make believe that we were, in fact, coming from Amman. I hope and assume that that kind of silliness has been dispensed with.
There are, as you say, three levels of meetings here, which is kind of interesting. One might have foreseen a trip in which the president would have his important bilateral with the Saudis, then an important bilateral with the Israelis. In fact, there are three levels of meetings in Saudi Arabia, the first being the bilateral meeting with the king and other members of the royal family and the government; then a GCC meeting, Gulf Cooperation Council, with the neighbors of Saudi Arabia; and then this much broader meeting with not just Arab but other Muslim leaders from around the world, and several dozen are apparently coming. That’s quite interesting because it shows a broader outreach here, and it raises the question of Islam and what the president calls radical Islamic extremism. It’ll be very interesting to see what he says because the speech he makes, you know, really has to go here between Scylla and Charybdis, between the—between very dangerous portals because if he says nothing about Islamist extremism, then I think supporters at home will say he bit his tongue; if he says too much about it, he could conceivably offend some of those who are there. So it’ll be very interesting to see precisely what he says.
Now, one other thing worth mentioning about that, the fact that so many leaders want to come to this session and see him, be photographed with him. We’re immersed here in Washington with the FBI issue and tweets and all of this; they obviously make less of an impact in those foreign capitals where he is still seen as the president of the United States with whom they want to meet and whom they want to hear.
So what are the issues? You know, for the—for the Saudis and the other Middle Eastern Sunni Arab, the real big issue is Iran. That’s clearly at the top of their agenda. They have felt and said for some years that they believe the United States and the previous administration was not doing enough to slow down Iran’s rise to hegemony in the region, its activities in Yemen, its activities in Iraq, its activities in Syria, in the Gulf, in the Bab al-Mandeb and the approaches to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. And they obviously want the president to be doing more. They were very happy with the attack on Syria after the use of chemical weapons. Apparently, there are going to be some announcements about arms sales, which they will also be very happy with. So Iran and the various aspects of Iran’s behavior in the region are I think at the top of the agenda.
And then given the nature of that larger meeting with Muslim leaders from beyond the Middle East, the question of extremist groups like al-Qaida and Islamic State and Islamic extremism more generally will certainly be on the agenda as well.
Why don’t I stop there?
SCHMEMANN: Thank you, Elliott. And it’s notable, of course, that of the 24-some countries that have been invited, that Iran was not invited. So there is that notable exception there.
Let’s turn to Robert Danin to discuss the next stop on the president’s trip, which is Israel, and of course, also, a very symbolic choice to go to Israel, and then from there to the Vatican, which is essentially, you know, meeting the three world’s great religions.
But Robert Danin, President Trump seems it have forged a warm relationship with the Israeli leader, Netanyahu. He vowed to mediate peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. And of course, he has a busy agenda prepared for his stop in Israel. What can we expect from that part of the trip?
DANIN: Well, thank you. And good morning, everybody.
Well, the fact that President Trump is going to Israel is, first of all, welcomed greatly by the Israelis because, like everyone else in the region, they still are comparing President Trump to his predecessor, President Obama. And recall President Obama on his first trip to the Middle East did not stop in Israel, and this was a slight that the Israelis did not forget for eight years. And so the fact that President Trump is coming to Israel on his first trip overseas is welcome.
The fact that he’s going not only to Israel but will also make a stop in Bethlehem and meet with President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority is something that is a bit of a surprise to the Israelis because what it reflects for them is a continuity with previous presidents that they thought perhaps had been ended, that is, President Trump came to power, campaigned as the disrupter, as someone who’s going to break with traditional American policy towards Israel in the sense of not wanting to impose a peace on Israel, wanting to stand with Israel against regional threats, stand with, you know, a traditional American ally. The fact that in the 120 days, let’s say, of the—of this administration, the president has gone from having been a—started by appointing as ambassador to Israel someone who’s a friend of the settler movement and—to a position to now where he is seeking the ultimate deal is something that has caught the Israeli government by surprise and has generated a certain degree of apprehension. And so the fact that he’s now going to see both—he’s going both to Israel and to the Palestinian territories, the fact he’s going to see both Israeli leaders and the Palestinian leaders, marks a continuity that started with really President Clinton and the era of the peace process. And so President Trump now is a peace process friend and he has come forth as someone who wants to do a peace deal.
And he is going to give a speech in Israel. He’s going to go to Masada and give a big speech that many people are awaiting with apprehension because they don’t know what he’s going to say. And that uncertainty is very anxiety-provoking for the Israeli government because they fear that he is going to ask the Israelis to do things that this government may not want to do, may not be in a position to do.
But in any case, the mere fact that he’s pursuing the peace process as a priority and rather than coming to Israel to merely a symbolic visit or as part of a regional reorientation in which Iran and the greater strategic threats that Israel faces is paramount is something of a disappointment to the Israeli government.
I don’t want to overstate the negative element here, but there is, behind the smiles and the warm feelings that will be generated on this visit, there is a lot of apprehension in the Israeli government about the prospects moving forward because, really, the reality is that in Israel and in the Palestinian territories and, frankly, here in Washington, very few people see a real change in the dynamics that would lead to a breakthrough towards peace in the fundamentals that impeded the previous presidents and the last effort of Secretary of State John Kerry.
The only variable that has changed is President Trump, and the fact that President Trump wants to do a deal and wants to conclude the deal does introduce a significant new variable. Given the president’s proclivities, no one wants to get on his bad side, and so there’s a very keen desire, I think, on both the Israeli side and on the Palestinian side not to run afoul of the president.
And so everyone, I would say, in these early days are doing a very delicate dance to try to be accommodating toward the president’s desire to reach peace and suspend what is a certain degree of disbelief that a deal can be reached.
SCHMEMANN: Good, thank you for that.
Yeah, I heard someone say last week that the president wants good meetings with his international counterparts, so he gets good meetings. And I think there’s some wisdom to that.
To anybody who has joined us late, I just want to repeat that this is a Council on Foreign Relations on-the-record call. And we are discussing President Trump’s agenda with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the broader Middle East as he prepares for his first international trip as president.
And I’m joined by Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellows Elliott Abrams, Steven Cook, and Robert Danin. And we will have a transcript of this call available afterwards in case anyone has missed any parts of it.
And I have been asked by some of our callers, speakers, for us to please speak up a little bit and to speak slowly and precisely because the line is a little fuzzy.
And with that, Operator, I think we are ready to take some questions.
OPERATOR: Thank you. At this time, we will open the floor for questions.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
Our first question comes from James Reinl of Middle East Eye.
Q: Hi, gentlemen, can you hear me?
SCHMEMANN: Yes, go ahead.
Q: Thanks so much for the call today. I really appreciate some of the comments that you’ve given already because the experts have sought to contextualize Trump’s upcoming trip to the Middle East with the efforts of previous presidents when they went over there. And that’s really helpful for a piece that I’m writing.
And I guess, you know, my question is, in this, you know, history of U.S. presidents’ visits over to the Middle East, maybe starting with FDR, you know, striking deals with the Saudis on Bitter Lake, all the way up to more recently, you know, Barack Obama’s Cairo speech, could I ask each of the experts to pick out a major presidential moment in the Middle East and something that Trump might be able to use to inform his upcoming visit?
SCHMEMANN: Thank you.
Elliott, why don’t you take a stab at that one?
ABRAMS: Yikes. A major presidential moment? You know, I suppose when you say the—my first major moment, Eisenhower’s decision in ’56 not to back Israel, France and England in Suez. But, of course, that didn’t involve a trip, that was a decision, just as Bush’s decision, George W. Bush’s decision, and for that matter George H.W. Bush’s, about Iraq and Saddam Hussein were made in Washington and didn’t involve trips. So I think that’s one thing that is worth saying, that normally, of course, trips are symbolic. Major decisions are not made in trips, they are made before them. The trip is an action-forcing device to get all the ducks in line, to make sure answers to questions are in-hand prior to getting on the plane, which is why I think that one should not overstate what will be decided during the trip.
I would, this is perhaps not answering your question, but I would just add that for many of the people who he is going to be meeting, particularly in Riyadh, this will be their first exposure to the president and that will be important for the future of American foreign policy under President Trump. What does he make of them and what do they make of him?
But I tend to think these trips are more important in establishing or changing personal relationships than they are in setting the major decisions of American foreign policy.
SCHMEMANN: OK, thanks.
Let’s take the next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Daniel Burke of CNN.
Q: Hello. Thank you both.
I wonder if—a two-part question—I wonder what we can say, if anything, about Trump’s own position on what a peace deal would entail between the Israelis and Palestinians when he famously said early on that he could take a one-state, he could take a two-state and it almost seemed not to matter to him. Has there been a development since then?
And the part two is, when the president goes to Riyadh, can we expect any reaction, any blowback from Muslim leaders about the travel ban that he put forward twice? What has been the reaction in the Muslim world to that EO? And thank you.
SCHMEMANN: Thank you.
Robert Danin, why don’t you take on the peace deal and prospects of a breakthrough, if you will.
And then, Steven, if you can talk about broad relations with the Muslim world.
DANIN: To the first part of the question, I mean, the outcome of a deal, you know, I think much was overinterpreted by the president’s statement when he met with Prime Minister Netanyahu in February, the one-state, two-state response to a question at the time. The message he was trying to convey was I, President Trump, can accept and will live with whatever solution both parties agree to and I’m interested in the deal, not in dictating the outcome of that deal, so whatever they agree to, one-state, two-state, I’m fine with that. Because in reality, what he was also saying was, in that sense, both parties have a veto on the deal. It has to be mutually agreed upon and the Palestinian desired outcome is a two-state outcome. And so, you know, I think it was very quickly any ambiguity about that was rectified.
But I think, you know, the larger point that he was making, which is that the outcome of a deal is one that, you know, the vision of the outcome of the outcome the deal is one that he wants the parties to come up with, I think, still pertains. And one of the sources of uncertainty that still pertains is, for both Israelis and Palestinians, is the lack of clarity about what is it that the president really seeks to do other than produce a deal.
And so, you know, in the Middle East and for Israelis and Palestinians and Arabs alike, you know, I think there’s, generally speaking, 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.
And this trip has come on rather quickly. And here we are a week out and already and still, I should say, a lot of the questions about the details of the trip are still being hammered out, fundamental issues about the trip. And again, it will all work out and will all be fine and the photo ops will all come out as they, you know, will. But let’s say the period between now and the trip is one that I don’t envy the Sherpas and the advance people because there’s so much to be done and there’s so much uncertainty around fundamental questions still, including, what is it the president really seeks to say about the deal?
SCHMEMANN: Thank you.
And, Steven, a Muslim summit in the wake of the so-called Muslim ban?
COOK: Well, you know, there is a difference between the way in which governments in the Muslim world, and particularly in the Arab world, view President Trump and the way in which people are responding to the Muslim ban. 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 Egyptian government, another important country in the region, understands that President Trump is opposed to radical Islamic extremism, as President Trump puts it, and that aligns very closely with the way in which the Egyptians view the world. So to the extent that there is an alignment of the interests between governments and President Trump’s world view and their interests, they’re going to be enthusiastic about this president.
Among people in the region, there’s a lot of wariness. There is concern about what it means for them and their families. There are a lot of connections between that part of the world and here to students, families on both ends are personally concerned about what it means to travel through Customs and Border Patrol at Dulles Airport or JFK or any other international gateway. And that seems to have had some effect on people, we just don’t know, though, if it has affected applications for student visas or tourism or anything along those lines just yet. But there does seem to be at the nongovernmental level some uneasiness about the travel ban.
SCHMEMANN: So is this President Trump’s effort at a reset, if you will?
COOK: Well, I think it is an effort on the part of the president to demonstrate that he’s not anti-Muslim and that he is opposed to dark forces through the Iranian meddling in the region and destabilizing the region that harms other Muslims for the most part, that he is opposed to, as you said and once again, radical Islamic extremism whose victims are primarily other Muslims. But it’s not—the trip hasn’t been cast in the same kind of self-conscious way as a reset with the Muslim world as, for example, President Obama’s June 2009 speech at Cairo University.
SCHMEMANN: OK, thank you.
Next question, please.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Trudy Rubin of Philadelphia Inquirer.
Q: Thanks very much for doing this, all of you.
You said that trips like this are usually symbolic. But given the vacuum that you talked about and the tone of uncertainty about President Trump’s policy, if this trip produces nothing concrete, not one specific, will it undercut the image that President Trump is trying to sell of he’s the man who can make the deal, you know?
And in line with this, you know, one way or another, will this trip clarify the question of moving the embassy to Jerusalem?
And, Steve, I also wanted to ask you, is there anything that President Trump can offer Erdoğan short of Gülen’s head on a plate or, you know, changing policy on the PYG that would pacify him? Is it possible that something anti-Iranian, something having to do with fighting the PKK in Sinjar, you know, might pacify him for the time being?
SCHMEMANN: Thank you, Trudy.
Elliott, let’s start with you on deliverables and expectations.
And then, Steven, a quick word on what Trump could possibly deliver.
ABRAMS: In general, I don’t think that people expect the president to lay out terms of a deal when he’s in Jerusalem, you know, and say a deal must have these following five points in it or here is the American plan. That’s not the way he’s approaching this, as Rob Danin said a few minutes ago. And I don’t think we should expect that and I don’t think that that will have a large impact.
However, I do think the question of Jerusalem and moving the embassy has to be addressed and silence is an important way of addressing it. I mean, if a president says nothing about it, then he is, in essence, moving away from the campaign promise. I know that the administration is grappling with this and has been for the last couple of weeks. But moving the embassy, if you broaden the aperture a bit, can have a lot of meanings. You could simply say that Jerusalem is henceforth to be regarded as the capital without addressing the question of the embassy. You could say that Americans who want their passports to say Jerusalem, Israel will now be able to get that, reversing previous State Department positions.
You could go all the way and say that you’re going to start the process of building an embassy and explain that it’s going to be in West Jerusalem so it doesn’t affect any of the disputed areas. You could say the embassy is going to stay in Tel Aviv, but the ambassador will spend a lot of time in Jerusalem. Or you could say nothing.
And I know that, as I say, I know that they are grappling with this because they have been under pressure from a number of Arab capitals to do, frankly, what all of the president’s recent predecessors have done, which is to make a campaign promise and then not meet it. And this decision will need to be made by the administration anyway in about two weeks, three weeks because the deadline for waiving the Jerusalem Embassy Act will arrive and the president’s got to act on that.
One other thing he could do would be to say, well, I’m going to waive, but I’m not going to waive for four years. I’m only going to waive if certain conditions are met, like there exists an active negotiating track. But that’s the one place where I think people expect to hear something or will take it as a decision if they don’t hear.
And, Steven, on what Erdoğan might expect?
COOK: Well, it’s a very tough question. Erdoğan, I think, has some expectations that there will be movement on the YPG and I don’t expect that there really will be. There will continue to be the assurances about the PKK and providing the Turks what they need to fight the PKK. But that the United States is going to go ahead with arming the YPG and the YPG is the bulk of its ground forces when it comes to Raqqa, the Turks will come and say, how about the Turkish-trained force, how about using them instead of the (Syrian ?) Democratic Forces, that’s not likely to go over well with the Pentagon that doesn’t think much in terms of the capabilities of that force.
So there’s not much and there will probably be a lot of talk on the Turkish side about Fethullah Gülen. But the fact remains that that is an issue that is in the hands of the Department of Justice and the courts and it’s not likely to move anywhere. The Gülen extradition is going to be hard.
The Zarrab case is a little bit easier, which is good for Erdoğan because I think that that’s a much more important case for him. Because as we all know, there is no U.S. attorney in the Southern District at the moment and the president and the attorney general can appoint someone who isn’t interested in moving forward with the Zarrab case and that can essentially make it go away.
But other than that, there’s not a lot of give on the American side. And that’s why, despite the kind of positive atmosphere that Erdoğan wants to kind of create ahead of the actual visit, my sense is that, once he lands back in Istanbul, he’ll come back as—without much to answer for, and will probably, for domestic political reasons, turn up the rhetoric once again.
SCHMEMANN: Thank you.
Next question, please.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Max de Haldevang with Quartz.
Q: Hi there. Yeah, sort of reasonably—thanks a lot for doing this, as everyone said.
Yeah, reasonably sort of—well, I don’t know how straightforward this is, but what looks like success for Trump coming out of both these trips?
Robert, why don’t you take that?
DANIN: Well, look, I think that it’s easy to get lost in the weeds. And we as policy analysts, you know, are looking for policy. But I think the larger point really is, you know, the visit is the message. And success, I think, will be the president being presidential on the world stage, having meetings in Riyadh with not only the Saudi leadership and the GCC leadership but leaders from throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds; the imagery that will emerge from visiting Israel and the Holy Land.
And here, I think, one interesting sideline—you know, Elliott was exactly right. I mean, the—you know, the images are going to be critical. And President Trump is going to Masada. And this is a bit unusual and it’s very interesting, because Masada itself has—is—this is the Roman—the site of Jewish resistance to the Romans’ rule 2,000 years ago and, you know, is very meaningful for Israelis and in Jewish history for a number of reasons and is very disputed even within Jewish history, and so the fact that—disputed because of—in terms of what it means historically.
And so President Trump going there—the image of the president up at Masada is going to be a very lasting image, I think. And so I think success for President Trump, you know, also being in Bethlehem, all of these—the images of the president being presidential, visiting these very important political and religious sites, will be the success.
I think that, you know, traditionally presidents—it’s only the absence—you know, only gaffes are the biggest worry for any presidential visit. But, absent that, then the images will dominate more than anything.
Secondly, and as Elliott pointed out, I mean, I think that this is about forging relationships both at the leadership level but also at the popular level. And I think success for President Trump means correcting a perceived mistake of President Obama, which was being rough on your friends and too friendly to your adversaries. And I think success will be being seen to be supportive of America’s friends and tough against America’s adversaries.
SCHMEMANN: Thank you.
Next question, please.
OPERATOR: Thank you.
Our next question comes from Haik Gugarats with Argus Media.
Q: Yes. Thanks.
Can you talk about to what degree the Iran nuclear deal will be on the agenda there (as spoken, or ?) off the agenda, but discussed in some way?
SCHMEMANN: Yeah, Iran. Elliott, why don’t you try that one?
ABRAMS: Certainly it will be, although not at the top of the agenda, for a couple of reasons. First, the administration, after some talk during the campaign by various Republican candidates about junking the JCPOA on day one, has not done that. I mean, we’re—this is day 110 or something like that, and clearly they’re not going to junk the deal. The administration says there’s a big review of it under way. And I believe that they will say that if questioned about it during the visit to Riyadh.
But there’s a second reason. The Israelis were concerned above all with Iran’s nuclear program. But the Gulf Arabs have been concerned above all with Iran’s hegemonic—what they would call hegemonic behavior in the region, not the nuclear program. They’re much more concerned about subversion in Bahrain or the presence of Revolutionary Guards and Shia militias in Iraq and in Syria. They’re concerned about the role of Hezbollah in Syria.
So then this is not the number one issue. They would be more—they are more interested in seeing the United States push back against Iran and its proxies, the way it did—the United States did in the Syria bombing, the way it might in the Gulf itself, where Iran continues to harass American shipping. They’re very concerned about not permitting Iran’s—what they would say Iran’s proxies, the Houthis in Yemen, taking control of the Bab-el-Mandeb through positions on the coast.
So this is their number one question. And I think the president is going to hear a lot more about that and a lot less about the nuclear deal on this trip.
COOK: Anya, can I just underline that for one quick second? In my time in the Gulf, Gulf countries have basically said—and, in fact, one Gulf official said if the Iranians want a nuclear device, we’d be happy to provide one for—provide the money for them to buy one. What we don’t want and what we object so much about the JCPOA is the amount of resources now flowing to the Iranian government, and those resources can be used to advance and reinforce Iran’s influence throughout the region. They’re most concerned about being surrounded and the destabilization of the Arabian Peninsula, far more than what Iranian scientists and technicians may or may not be doing.
SCHMEMANN: OK, thank you.
Operator, could you just remind all of our callers how to get in on the queue? I think we have time for just a few more questions.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
SCHMEMANN: Great. And we’ll take the next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Ina Ruck of ARD German TV.
Q: Yeah, hello. Thank you for doing this.
You answered a little bit of my question already. I would like to know whether we can expect there were in Yemen to be on the agenda in Saudi Arabia. And what do you expect from the president? What is the position he would sell there?
SCHMEMANN: Yeah, Elliott maybe on Yemen, and then Rob, if you’d like to chime in you’re welcome to. Elliott?
ABRAMS: OK. Yes, it will be on the agenda because from the Saudi point of view it is a prime example of Iran’s misconduct in Arab countries. And obviously, the Saudis have been involved in a war there which is quite costly to them. So they’re going to want to—they’re going to want more American support.
Now, they are getting it. And I have heard Saudi officials say that they are getting more intelligence from the United States this year than they got under the Obama administration. So they are happy with that, happy also with an increased American naval presence off the coast of Yemen, happy with what we believe will be a large arms sale. I believe they would like the president to say something, at least mentioning Yemen the way the Saudis mention it; that is, not viewing it exclusively as a civil war, but rather seeing it as an example of mischief-making by Iran in the Arab world.
DANIN: I will just add to that. I mean, I think Yemen is an interesting question because this is a perfect example of where, you know, policy and symbolism are maybe in conflict. Because I think it’s clear President Trump will—you know, has already indicated that the United States wants to stand very closely with Saudi Arabia against—fighting, you know, Islamist threats and stand tough against Iran. So Yemen is, for the Saudis, very much, you know, been portrayed as the confluence of those two issues.
Beneath the surface within the administration there is, though, I think some concern about whether or not the Saudis are overextended in Yemen, the cost that it’s incurring for the Saudis in terms of resources and the bloodshed, and what constitutes success. So I think at the declaratory level you will, if anything—the only thing you would hear is kind of support for Saudi Arabia, but it is possible—and we won’t know for some time, I would imagine—but, you know, that there may be also some serious conversations at the policy level behind closed doors in which the United States also says, you know, and President Trump says to the Saudi leadership, OK, you know, I’ll back you, but what’s the exit plan, what’s the—how does this end? Because I don’t see that this is good for you or for us, and we’d like to kind of focus on some other larger, regional issues together.
SCHMEMANN: And, Steve, on Yemen?
COOK: Yeah, just two very quick points. Let me underline something that Rob just said, which is that there is a sense within the administration, within the Pentagon about how to extricate the Saudis from Yemen. That’s going to be a difficult task. But there is, I think, very serious and significant concern that the Saudis are overextended, that the war is unwinnable, and that they need to start thinking about how it is to ultimately get the Saudis out, otherwise it’s going to destabilize Saudi Arabia.
And then I think the other thing to think about when it comes to the operations in Yemen is that it’s also a fight against al-Qaida of the Arabian Peninsula. And Emirati forces in particular have focused a lot of attention there as well. So it’s not just a question of Iranian meddling; there is this aspect of the fight there that the Emiratis have taken on, with American support. And my understanding is they’re getting increased American support in that effort as well.
SCHMEMANN: Thank you. Next question, please.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Zaid Benjamin with Radio Sawa.
Q: Yes. (Off mic, technical difficulties.)
OPERATOR: One moment, Mr. Benjamin, while I adjust your line.
Q: (Off mic, technical difficulties.) Can you hear me now?
SCHMEMANN: No, I’m afraid we can’t hear you. Why don’t we try to come back to you after one more question and see if you can get a more secure line.
Operator, we’ll take another question and then see if we can go back to Radio Sawa.
OPERATOR: Thank you.
Our next question comes from Ira Stoll of The New York Sun.
Q: Hi. A lot of people on the Israel-Palestinian talks say, you know, why even bother, the Palestinian leadership is a mess and Netanyahu has political constraints with the settlers. What’s your assessment of, like, an upside surprise on this, like the possibility that in the next three-and-a-half years we’ll see some sort of meaningful progress or interim deal or even Palestinian state-minus? Is that just a fantasy, or does know something that we don’t, maybe, in pursuing it or in having Jared Kushner pursue it?
SCHMEMANN: Yeah, thanks. Robert, let’s go to you with that. I had the same question about the actors involved in this and what we might see.
DANIN: I think what you hear—is it possible? Sure it’s possible, but I wouldn’t want to put odds on it.
I think there is a sense, though, amongst Middle Easterners, Israelis and Palestinians and Arabs alike, which is, look, we’ve been at this for 20 years; nothing we’ve tried has worked. So all of the Washington policy wonks, all of the experts have kind of been unable to come through with this, so maybe if this president who comes along and says he wants to do it and wants to put his, you know, deal-making skills behind it can do what others couldn’t. You know, OK. We’d all love to be—to see that movie. It’s hard.
Personally, I’m skeptical. I think most people are skeptical. But is it possible? Sure it’s possible. But again, what is going to change?
Again, what I tried to point to earlier is what is driving, I think, Israeli and Palestinian behavior in the tactical sense is not wanting to run afoul from the—of the administration. And so just to point out one very interesting development, President Mahmoud Abbas has completely abandoned all of the conditions that he had stated quite firmly for restarting negotiations with Prime Minister Netanyahu—no longer calling for a settlement freeze, no longer calling for terms of reference, nothing, no prisoner release. He’s willing to restart talks. Similarly, you know, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s going to be under a lot of pressure as well. So, in a tactical sense, I think there is a lot of room for getting a process going. But concluding a deal, that’s a different order of magnitude.
SCHMEMANN: Thank you.
Operator, let’s see if we get a clearer line from Radio Sawa.
OPERATOR: Thank you.
Sir, if you would like to re-ask your question, so I may join you, you have to press star-one again, from Radio Sawa.
SCHMEMANN: So, Zaid, let’s give you another try.
Are you there?
OPERATOR: Mr. Benjamin, your line is now open?
Q: Can you hear me now? Hello?
SCHMEMANN: Give it a try, but we have a—we are having a tough time hearing you.
Q: (Off mic, technical difficulties.) Is it clear?
SCHMEMANN: No, I’m afraid it’s not. Sorry about that. You’re welcome to email us with your question and we’ll see if we can get you a response by email, but unfortunately the line is not clear.
I think with that, actually, we will wrap up this call. We’ve certainly covered a lot of territory. A lot of anticipation for this big trip by President Trump. Do stay tuned to our website, www.CFR.org, for additional analysis and information. We’ll also be posting items on our Facebook and Twitter accounts. And you can follow many of our fellows on Twitter as well, and they will be sharing analysis and insights as we go forward.
We are very appreciative of all of you who have joined us today. I apologize to those of you who were waiting on the line and to whom we didn’t get to for questions. You’re always welcome to email us and we will direct you to several of our scholars.
And so I thank our three senior fellows today—Elliott Abrams, Steven Cook, and Robert Danin—for an excellent conversation, and I thank you all for joining us. And, with that, we will sign off. Thank you.