A horrific and devastating nail bomb attack at Manchester Arena in England has brought ISIS and terrorism back to the forefront of the news cycle. With over twenty innocent civilians killed and scores seriously injured, the world awaits a response from London and its Western allies. U.S. President Donald Trump is in the region and will be visiting NATO headquarters near Brussels, Belgium in coming days. Having just culminated his first foreign visit as head of state, to controversial anti-terror ally Saudi Arabia, Trump has an opportunity to turn around his sagging fortunes by exercising his foreign policy chops.
In recent weeks, Trump and his administration have been battered by a tide of scandal: Michael Flynn (back again and again), the James Comey firing, and allegedly divulging state secrets to Russia during an Oval Office meeting. Although few have declared that Trump was intentionally breaking laws, many have opined that the nation’s chief executive is downright incompetent. Indeed, Trump’s knee-jerk use of Twitter to assail critics and defend his views has only eroded his reputation as a leader.
But, with ISIS having claimed responsibility for the terror attack, can Trump re-focus the world’s attention on his campaign promise to destroy the reviled organization and win widespread support for his defense-heavy budget? Under attack for trying to slash spending on social welfare, Trump needs any opportunity to show that America needs to focus on military spending and anti-terror initiatives.
Now Trump has evidence that his radical plans to boost defense spending are rooted in reality rather than simply a desire to play armchair general.
But showing citizens that more military strength could be needed to destroy ISIS is only part of what Trump needs to turn his woeful May around. He also needs plenty of positive press to help stem the flood of negativity that has overwhelmed his administration. By remaining defiant and combative since his January 20 inauguration, Trump has ensured that the only mainstream media outlet that does not continuously bash him is Fox News.
Fortunately for him, Trump is in a good position to seize the initiative and win accolades in a time of need. He can divert his European itinerary to rush to Britain and stand in solidarity with our steadfast allies. A decent White House speech-writer could turn a few public appearances with Theresa May and/or Queen Elizabeth into solid gold. With poise and eloquence, Trump could go from international goat to brave friend and protector.
The fact that the tragic attack occurred in England, which recently elected a Trumpish prime minister (May) and voted via referendum to leave the European Union, makes Trump’s public relations gambit easier. While France or Germany would receive Trump’s condolences and offers of assistance more coolly, a more conservative Britain will give Trump a supportive platform. Together, Trump and May can point to the dangers of open borders and lack of Western resolve to stamp out Islamic extremism.
Although suspected bomber Salman Abedi died in the blast, the UK now fears that the young man was part of a larger network of ISIS extremists in Britain and that another attack may be imminent. With the possibility of another terrorist act looming, Europe is looking for strength and leadership. As Trump plays statesman this week, the ball is in his court to offer comfort and aid to Britons.
Becoming a statesman will require restraint and poise, neither of which are strengths of the president. Frankly, Donald Trump is more likely to open any speech about the ISIS terror attack with a criticism of NATO and member states’ alleged underpayment on defense. Instead of vowing help and friendship, our president will probably try to assign blame for radicalized bombers getting through Europe’s border enforcement. Obviously, this tactic would immediately halt any chance of Trump getting the positive mainstream press he needs.
Whether in London or Brussels, Trump needs to play friendly backup, not condescending supervisor.
Another topic Trump should steer clear of is Russia. Eager to show that Russia could be a valuable ally against ISIS, Trump might blunder into a speech where he encourages a U.S.-U.K.-Russia axis against terrorism. While this might indeed be a good strategy, it will play poorly given the recent Russia-related scandals that have plagued his administration. Such a speech would look like a ham-handed attempt to erase any and all previous concerns about Russian influence-buying and election-tampering.
Russia can certainly become a strong ally against ISIS, but we cannot pretend that their meddling in our affairs is acceptable. Unfortunately, such a political blunder will likely also be part of Trump’s speech lineup in Europe. He will insist that we let bygones be bygones and join with the Russians to crush Islamic extremism; a move that will enrage Russia critics like John McCain and Lindsey Graham and terrify Democrats.
When in Europe, Trump should seize the opportunity to temper some of his more controversial proposals. He can always claim to have learned from, or been inspired by, the European countries he is visiting. Given the traumatic event at Manchester Arena, nobody would call Trump a flip-flopper for changing his mind on some policies after having heartfelt conversations with European leaders. If Trump is going to moderate his views without being called a hypocrite, he will not find a better chance to act.
If Trump waits until he is back home, any changes in policy proposals will be seen as fear or political expedience. If Trump makes changes while talking with his European counterparts, he will be seen as open and diplomatic. Given the events of this spring, Trump needs a reset. Playing his cards right in Europe could turn his 2017 around.