President Donald Trump is scheduled to embark on his first international trip as president on Friday when he leaves for Saudi Arabia, Israel and Vatican City.
The choice of destinations sends “a very interesting message,” according to Vijay Prashad, chair in South Asian history and professor of international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.
“He’s made it a sort of ecumenical, interfaith tour of the world,” Prashad said.
Prashad, also a columnist for Alternet, joined Worldview’s Jerome McDonnell to discuss the three legs of the president’s journey, which takes place in the midst of an alleged intelligence leak and the appointment of a special counsel to investigate Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. Below are highlights from their conversation.
On Trump choosing Saudi Arabia for his first international visit
Vijay Prashad: As far as the U.S. State Department is concerned, Saudi Arabia has a very poor reputation for being judicious to its people on questions of human rights, and indeed it has a very poor reputation in the region given its meddling in countries that stretch from North Africa all the way out to Afghanistan. Mr. Trump has never actually articulated anything of concern — the Obama administration would at least say they have some concerns about human rights — Mr. Trump hasn’t even made that statement partly because, I think, he is enamored of the great wealth of the Saudi monarchy, and he has for many years sought business deals not only in Saudi Arabia but much more in the Gulf Arab states, which are in some ways satellites of Saudi Arabia. So it’s not, I think, surprising that this is his first visit. ...
One of the, I think, good parts of the Obama legacy was the Iran nuclear deal, which brought the temperature down between Saudi Arabia and Iran and produced some sort of opening for what many observers hoped would in time be a grand bargain between these two countries, because their rivalry is tearing apart the Middle East. But Mr. Trump, with his very aggressive position against Iran, and this first visit to Saudi Arabia, I fear is going to reopen or up the temperature between these two countries.
On Trump visiting Israel after allegedly revealing Israeli intelligence to Russia
Prashad: In many ways the Israeli government led by [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu has all of its chips in the basket of Donald Trump. In other words, Mr. Netanyahu had decided last year during the elections to essentially campaign for Donald Trump against Hillary Clinton. And so in many ways the Israeli government has put itself in the position where it cannot afford to be very critical of anything Donald Trump does.
What the American media hasn’t mentioned is that Donald Trump said this to the Russian government, mainly Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and the Russian government's own relationship to the Israeli government is quite warm. It’s not remarked upon much, but one fifth of the Jewish residents of Israel speak Russian. … So it’s not that Russia is, in a sense, an adversary of Israel. I think the Israelis might be quite happy to share this evidence with the Russians as well. The problem of course was it became public.
On Trump visiting the Vatican during the tenure of a ‘progressive’ Pope
Prashad: It’s curious indeed if we imagine the Vatican is coterminous with the Pope. But after all, the Vatican is a vast bureaucracy and a considerable section of it is influenced by a strand inside the Catholic bureaucracy known as Opus Day. It’s by now familiar that Trump’s counselor or advisor or consigliere or whatever title we should honor him with — Steve Bannon — has a great many friends in Opus Day and spoke very importantly at one of the conferences in 2014 where he made this interesting critique of capitalism, saying what’s wrong is Ayn Rand capitalism and what’s wrong is state capitalism and what’s necessary is a Judeo-Christian capitalism.
So Bannon has a great many friends in the Vatican and I’d therefore advise us to recognize that Mr. Trump also has a great many friends in the Vatican. His executive order that he signed which allows religious groups to be in politics, and also the executive order that goes after abortion provisions, or funding for abortion, is very popular in the Vatican. So even Pope Francis has sections of his agenda lifted up by Donald Trump. So I actually feel like he’s going to have a very warm reception in the Vatican. I think we overestimate the progressivism of the current Pope.
Vijay Prashad is a professor of international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. His latest book is titled The Death of the Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. Press the “play” button above to hear the entire segment.