Conservatives used to love to lambaste Barack Obama for traveling abroad and “apologizing” for U.S. conduct. Mitt Romney popularized the argument during one of the presidential debates in 2012. The “apology tour” became an oft-repeated meme among the president’s critics.
According to the Heritage Foundation, the former president “apologized for his country to nearly 3 billion people across Europe, the Muslim world, and the Americas.” Presumably Heritage prefers that the United States unapologetically enslave Africans, commit genocide against Native Americans, torture and kill people in other countries, subvert democracies, and cozy up to dictators.
Being an empire means never having to say you’re sorry.
In fact, though it would have been appropriate if he had, Obama never actually apologized for U.S. actions. But right-wingers were always looking for ways to interpret the president’s words in order to give credence to even more ludicrous arguments: that Obama wasn’t born in the United States, that he was a Muslim, that he embraced socialism or black nationalism. Only someone alien to American ways, Obama’s critics implied, would apologize for his country’s errors.
The man currently occupying the White House is positively allergic to apologies. Now on his first overseas trip as president, there’s no likelihood that an actual apology will pass Trump’s lips while he’s on foreign soil. And he doesn’t know enough history to make any informed comments on what America has or hasn’t done around the world.
But Trump needn’t apologize for his country: There’s plenty in his own conduct that requires contrition. At a time when his already low level of support has plummeted further at home, the president needs all the friends he can get overseas. That’s why his current trip amounts to an implicit apology tour: to make amends with Muslims, Jews, the Pope, and a handful of Europeans.
Making Out with the Saudis
Presidents usually make their first international
trip to somewhere in North America. John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama all went to Canada. Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush took their maiden voyages to Mexico. The outliers were Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter, both of whom visited Europe.
So, where does Donald Trump
go on his initial foray outside America? Mexico is clearly off the list, since he repeatedly pledged to wall off the country and make Mexicans pay for their own quarantine. In Canada, meanwhile, Justin Theroux has taken stances, particularly on refugees, that are in stark contrast to Trump’s. Perhaps if The Netherlands had made Geert Wilders prime minister or France had elected Marine Le Pen president, Trump would have made a beeline to those countries first.
Instead, Trump decided to go to a place that doesn’t have any elections, welcomes virtually no refugees, discourages political demonstrations, and is about as religiously fanatical as the right-wing evangelicals who still stand by their man in the White House. Indeed, Saudi Arabia
is the next best thing to visiting a red state and basking in the support of homegrown fanatics.
Of course, the speech that Trump delivered in Riyadh to the Arabic Islamic American Summit didn’t sound particularly apologetic. In fact, the president spoke of extremism as if it were only a problem for the Muslim world (oh, how useful it would be if Dylann Roof just admitted already that he’s a secret Muslim). America “seeks peace,” Trump asserted, but “Muslim nations must be willing to take on the burden, if we are going to defeat terrorism
and send its wicked ideology into oblivion.”
And, of course, Trump tactfully made no mention of Saudi contributions to extremist ideologies such as their funding of the spread of Wahhabism worldwide (not to mention the participation of Saudi individuals in terrorist attacks like September 11). Instead, the only nation he singled out for criticism was Iran: “The Iranian regime’s longest-suffering victims are its own people. Iran has a rich history and culture, but the people of Iran have endured hardship and despair under their leaders’ reckless pursuit of conflict and terror.”
Strangely, those same long-suffering people just turned out in record numbers in a competitive election that gave incumbent Hassan Rouhani a commanding mandate for a second term. Iranians savored the irony, with Foreign Minister Javad Zarif chiming in on Twitter: “Iran — fresh from real elections — attacked by @POTUS in that bastion of democracy & moderation,” Saudi Arabia.
But Trump’s words were nevertheless a kind of apology to the Muslim world — at least, certain portions of the Muslim world.
After all, in the past the president hadn’t restricted his negative comments about Islam to extremists. He’d talked about closing mosques, creating a database of all Muslims in the United States, and preventing all Muslims from entering the country. He declared that “Islam hates us.” His travel ban executive order didn’t mention Muslims by category nor did it include Saudi Arabia
among the seven (then six) countries listed. But the intent, as a number of court rulings have emphasized, was to exclude people coming to these shores by religion.
Some of Trump’s hardcore supporters were not entirely satisfied with his speech in Riyadh. Pamela Geller was upset that Trump didn’t dump on the Koran. Her partner in Islamophobia, Robert Spencer, groused that Trump didn’t do enough to link Islam with extremism.
They failed to understand the essence of the speech: Trump needs Saudi help (military as well as economic) just as he must rely on the Gulf States, Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan. These countries all happen to be Muslim. So, even if he never apologizes for the wretched things he said in the past, Trump must still do a measure of groveling to maintain his coalition of those willing to the bomb the shit out of the Islamic State.
The president will even sell $110 billion of arms to the most reactionary Muslim country in the world. Money speaks louder than apologies.
Patching Things Up with the Jews
Trump loves to combat charges of anti-Semitism by pointing to his Jewish son-in-law Jared Kushner and now-Jewish daughter Ivanka. It’s a preposterous argument. After all, his marriages to various women certainly didn’t prevent him from engaging in outrageous acts of misogyny over the years.
During the presidential campaign, the Trump crew used plenty of sly anti-Semitic tactics to appeal to the 12 percent of Americans with deeply entrenched antipathy toward Jews. The campaign associated Hillary Clinton with a secret international
financial elite. It used a Star of David to label Clinton “corrupt.” It refused to dissociate or condemn the anti-Semitic tweets and comments of supporters.
Once in office, the administration didn’t improve on its record. It issued a Holocaust remembrance statement without mentioning Jews (and deliberately spurned the State Department’s version that did). Trump’s attacks on the press have echoed Nazi-era broadsides. Anti-Semitic incidents spiked after the election.
It’s entirely possible that Trump doesn’t understand the latent anti-Semitic content of his remarks. After all, he’s ignorant of some basic facts, like that Israel is located in the Middle East. Also, it’s not exactly easy for an anti-Semite to be a New York real estate developer or a big macher in Florida. But no matter: On his first foreign trip, Trump desperately needed to balance his visit to the Saudis — and some nods in the direction of the Palestinians — with an implicitly apologetic drop-in to Israel.
Trump’s shift actually began earlier, when he had to court funder Sheldon Adelson and abandon whatever minimal even-handedness he maintained on Israeli-Palestinian issues. At the outset of his presidential campaign, Trump seemed to put the onus on Israel to make the necessary changes to facilitate a peace agreement with Palestinians. But with the prospect that Adelson, a big fan of hard-right Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, would shift his funding away from a failing Marco Rubio, Trump pivoted to pandering.
Jackpot: Adelson became the largest financial backer of the Trump campaign.
In Israel, Trump didn’t make any apologies for his campaign tactics. Nor did he apologize for sharing Israeli intelligence on the Islamic State with the Russian government. But visiting Israel so early in his presidency sent a strong signal of solidarity with the government of Netanyahu. Trump also donned a yarmulke and stood at the Western Wall and later visited to the Holocaust remembrance museum at Yad Vashem.
As with his overtures to Muslims, Trump is only interested in reconciling with some Jews. His approval rating among most American Jews, three-quarters of whom describe themselves as liberal or moderate and object to the divisive policies of Netanyahu, remains abysmal: a mere 31 percent. He’s betting that a “huge” peace deal between Israel and Palestine will win over this constituency. It’s a long shot, to say the least.
A Holy Trinity
Pope Francis is the un-Trump. He is inclusive, humble, and focused on the needs of the poor.
But the pope also has a backbone. During the election campaign, he effectively accused Trump of being un-Christian for his approach to refugees and immigrants. “For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful,” Trump wrote in response. “If and when the Vatican is attacked by ISIS, which as everyone knows is ISIS’s ultimate trophy, I can promise you that the Pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump
would have been president because this would not have happened.”
This was the trifecta of religious intolerance: Trump had managed during his campaign to offend Muslims, Jews, and Christians. You’d think that someone who rarely attended church, routinely engaged in fornication, and broke numerous other commandments would tread very carefully with regard to the Abrahamic faiths. But Trump has never been accused of lacking chutzpah.
But now the president has a chance to make amends with his pilgrimage. The pope, who has washed the feet of inmates from Italian jails, charitably welcomed the serial sinner to the Vatican. He was gracious, but he also raised some controversial issues, such as health care and assistance for immigrants. He also gave Trump a 2015 encyclical on climate change. The president promised to read it. That’s as unlikely as a formal apology from the president — but his presence at the Vatican was at least a gesture in that direction.
The final stops on Trump’s itinerary will be Brussels and Sicily. He’ll have a chance to apologize to NATO for questioning its existence, EU officials for supporting political candidates eager to dismantle the institution, and G7 leaders for leading a populist revolt against globalization.
True, even on these issues, Trump has been retreating from his more extreme campaign positions. But don’t expect any explicit apologies. In one respect, Trump and the pope share something in common. The Donald firmly believes in his own infallibility. Plunging approval ratings, rising talk of impeachment, and the prospect of blistering losses in next year’s midterm elections haven’t shaken his faith.
No surprise: Trump is that rare form of monotheist who believes in no God but himself.
John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus. You can find him on Twitter at @johnfeffer