Beltway Briefing

1. The House of Representatives is set to vote against a bill authorising the US action in Libya in a further blow to Barack Obama's authority. Republicans and Democrats are furious that the US President failed to seek congressional authorisation before the start of the mission as required under the 1973 War Powers Resolution. "The war in Libya is illegal, unconstitutional and unwarranted. It must end," Democratic representative Dennis Kucinich said.

The House will also vote on a bill to cut off funding for US military attacks in Libya. "The president has ignored the Constitution and the War Powers Resolution, but he cannot ignore a lack of funding," said Republican Tom Rooney, the sponsor of the bill. "Only Congress has the power to declare war and the power of the purse, and my bill exercises both of those powers by blocking funds for the war in Libya unless the president receives congressional authorisation."

The measure would allow US forces to remain engaged in non-hostile actions in Libya such as search and rescue efforts, intelligence, surveillance and refueling. The bill is expected to pass in the House but it is almost certain to fail in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

2. Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney has released a new video entitled "Obama's Misery Index: Ryan's Story". In the video, Ryan King of Midland, Michigan, reflects on the woes of unemployment: "I buy bologna and bread, commonly, because it's cheap - what I eat."

The Misery Index, an unofficial chart totalling unemployment and inflation rates, is at one of its highest levels in 28 years. In a sign of how fragile the US economic recovery is, the Index is set to register at 12.7 for May - 9.1 per cent for unemployment and 3.6 per cent for inflation.

3. A new Sarah Palin documentary will premiere in Iowa next week, according to reports. The Undefeated , directed by conservative filmmaker Stephen K. Bannon, chronicles Palin's rise from Alaska governor to vice presidential candidate.

Palin, who has yet to announce whether she will enter the 2012 presidential race, has been invited to attend the premiere. A preview of the film can be seen below.

4. Republican hopeful John Huntsman has opened his campaign office in the bellweather state of Florida. Huntsman, who officially entered the presidential race on Tuesday, said he chose Orlando for his campaign's headquarters because his wife, Mary Kaye, grew up in the area.

In an address to staff and volunteers, he pledged to avoid personal attacks on his opponents. "I want people who work in this office to remember that civility means something," Huntsman said. "I believe that you don't have to run down another human being to run for president of the United States."

5. Barack Obama is to visit Iowa on Monday as part of his "Winning the Future" tour of companies and manufacturing plants. The US President will tour a Davenport Alcoa plan to highlight the role of advanced manufacturing in American job creation and exports. Obama's visit will follow that of Republican hopeful Michele Bachmann, who is due to officially launch her presidential bid in Waterloo, Iowa, on Monday. Obama won the state in 2008 by 54 per cent to John McCain's 45 per cent.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
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Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

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