Remember the glowing orb? Or the elaborate sword dance? Or the five-story-high Trump visage projected against the facade of the Ritz hotel in Riyadh? During Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia in 2017, the Saudi royals demonstrated that his narcissism makes him an easy mark, and by playing on it advanced their agenda.
The big “get” of Trump’s first foreign trip was an announcement that Saudi Arabia would purchase $110 billion in defense hardware. That turned out to be a lie. Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the crown prince, later held political enemies hostage in the very same hotel onto which Trump’s face was projected. That was after he kidnapped and held hostage the prime minister of Lebanon but before he had an American permanent resident murdered and dismembered.
Apparently, playing to Trump’s narcissism worked because Trump’s devotion never wavered. If you just put his tweets on billboards along the route from the Riyadh airport (#POTUSabroad), he’ll someday issue a veto (only the second of his presidency) so as to continue U.S. involvement in the Saudi war in Yemen, which, thanks to Saudi Arabia’s performance, resembles a campaign to starve Yemeni children.
This boondoggle of a trip served notice for foreign intelligence services that flattery purchases success. Putin did his homework before the pointless summit in Helsinki and praised Trump into submission. And, while “maximum pressure” on North Korea may not have much to show for itself, Trump found a new friend.
Lest you think this strategic flattery is just the stuff of enemies, enter Bibi. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has called for a new settlement in the Golan Heights named after President Trump. In 2017, Trump said that settlements are “not a good thing for peace.” Any takers for the bet that he will feel differently about this one?
Netanyahu clearly counts on it. Regardless of your opinion of Israel annexing the Golan Heights, or the Trump administration’s recognition of it, Israeli settlements in the Golan will be controversial, likely magnets for violence, and defending them politically will be a heavy lift for the U.S. Doing so will take the place of other American policy priorities, and America does not have endless diplomatic leverage.
But Netanyahu knows that the best way to get America to spend diplomatic capital on his priorities is to play to Trump’s vanity—a Trump-branded settlement in the Golan, for example.
So when Europe condemns the the construction of settlements in the Golan, perhaps at a time when the U.S. has more pressing needs for European cooperation on a matter American voters care more about, Netanyahu seems to believe Trump will stand behind Israel. If Bibi begins settlement construction at a time that Americans would prefer the president pressure Saudi Arabia on gas prices, will he pressure Riyadh or stand up for the settlement that bears his name, thus irritating Saudi Arabia, one of the countries that protested the Golan annexation?
When Trump’s famously short attention wanders, what better way to draw it back to Bibi’s priority than by creating a target for Hezbollah and then naming it for Trump? Bibi literally weaponized Trump’s narcissism and, in doing so, cleverly wrote himself a blank check to be cashed by American prestige, effort, and priorities under the guise of defending Trump’s brand.
Japan’s Prime Minister Abe, South Korea’s Moon, China’s President Xi, France’s President Macron and others, have tried their hand at flattery, all with varying degrees of success. Another way to see that is that all of these leaders believed that Trump values his ego as more important than America’s interests. They know what he represents.
Of course, Trump could demur on having a settlement named after him, but clearly, world leaders see this as a hack for the Art of the Deal. Or maybe they know what his diehard supporters do not: This whole president thing is about fluffing his ego; he could care less about what voters want.