Trump in Saudi Arabia needs to stick to the script—Commentary


The silver lining is that some other traditional foes in the Middle East are now banding together. One of the worst-kept secrets over the past two to three years is that Israel and the Saudis have been co-operating in efforts to fight ISIS and defend themselves against Iranian aggression. For the Saudis, this makes practical sense. As much as the Saudis may hate Israel, they fear Iran and ISIS more. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” is a major theme here.

Enter President Trump who is unlikely to retract his earlier attacks on Saudi Arabia, but is appears willing to make amends with Riyadh and use a strengthened relationship as leverage against the Iranians and ISIS.

He’s expected to formally announce a massive $300 billion arms sale to the Saudis that includes a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile system, littoral combat ships designed to fight in shallow water close to shore, and precision guided munitions designed to limit civilian casualties.

Much of the deal was actually put together by the Obama administration, but put on hold last year. Now, President Trump can take credit for being the savior in what was a deteriorating relationship.

President Trump can’t realistically hope for an immediate boost in the polls or any real respite from his critics at home. But he can get a significant shot in the arm internationally as he plays the role of deal maker and promoter of a wider peace. The religious imagery of the trip in total is also a powerful statement to much of his base, as he will follow his visit to Saudi Arabia with a stop in Israel and then the Vatican.

But Trump must avoid stumbles and scandals, which could make this trip about him and not about new policy. The Trump team is making a choice of the lesser of two evils, and that’s not always an easy argument to make. The good news is that with the Israelis doing the same thing, Trump has some decent strategic and diplomatic backup on this one. The Saudis are making a similar tough choice by ignoring Trump’s past rhetoric and polls that show that most Saudi people believe the president is “anti-Muslim.”

One of the most serious criticisms of President Trump is not that his policies are bad, but that he has no comprehensive and consistent policies at all. With this trip beginning in Saudi Arabia with a $300 billion deal in tow and a clear message for the Iranians, the White House can start to answer that criticism with more than just lip service.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.

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