It’s what you might call an “audition moment.”
As top representatives of more than 60 countries descend on Washington this week for a summit of the coalition fighting the Islamic State, the foreign delegations are trying to score meetings with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, as well as the close coterie of loyalists and relatives surrounding President Donald Trump at the White House.
“It’s one of the first opportunities to meet their counterparts,” a European government official said of the foreign ministers and others attending the summit. “It’s a long queue.”
But the summit also offers the two-month-old administration, which has struggled to present a unified message on foreign policy, a chance to make a positive impression on an important group of allies about its plans to defeat the terrorist network in Iraq and Syria.
“The administration has been very clear that it wants to defeat ISIS in a more intensified manner. The other Middle East piece is that it wants to hem Iran in. We’re all looking for signals and signs and details of where these policy statements will take us,” said Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the Kurdistan Regional Government representative to the United States, who will attend the summit as part of the Iraqi delegation.
White House and State Department officials would not share details about potential bilateral meetings during the summit or whether the president himself would appear at the event, where foreign ministers will meet on Wednesday and working group leaders on Thursday. It’s the coalition’s largest gathering since it launched in 2014.
Diplomats who spoke to POLITICO mentioned hopes of getting a few minutes with Tillerson, as well as with several Trump aides. High on the wish list are White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, and, of course, the president’s daughter, Ivanka.
Such meetings are especially key for smaller countries, from Estonia to Panama, that sometimes struggle to get access to top players in any U.S. administration. A few minutes with a Trump family member could pay off in the long run, and who knows, some observers point out, perhaps the foreign leaders might run into Trump himself.
“The side meetings will be more important than the main show,” said a person close to the administration. “It’s an audition moment. They want to get that White House lunch.” The person added, however: “I think that this is still about other countries being more interested in the U.S. than Trump is about them.”
The summit is being hosted by the State Department, where many diplomats are eager for attention after being largely marginalized since Trump took office in January. And while such events are largely scripted, many observers are wondering if Trump will liven things up through off the cuff remarks, or tweets.
That being said, despite Trump’s stinging campaign trail criticism of President Barack Obama’s strategy toward the Islamic State, observers don’t expect the new administration to chart a radically different path on the policy front.
The Obama team used a number of tools to degrade the Islamic State, including training, advising and offering air support for Iraqi-led ground troops; deploying U.S. Special Forces to Syria; cutting off financial support for the jihadists; and trying to counter the extremists’ online propaganda. The Islamic State has lost a great deal of its territory, but it remains a potent force online. Its opponents fear many of the terrorist group’s followers will ultimately return to their home countries to fuel insurgencies, carry out individual attacks and help radicalize a new generation of violent extremists.
Rather than all-out scuttle the Obama initiatives, the Trump administration appears intent on intensifying some of them, including by sending hundreds more troops to Iraq and Syria and loosening the rules of engagement that could, in turn, permit more civilian casualties. The Trump team insists, as Obama did, that the troops being sent are serving as advisers and trainers for local forces, but some critics are warning of mission creep that could entangle U.S. combat troops in another Middle Eastern war.
The Pentagon has drawn up a menu of options for Trump to further escalate the anti-ISIS campaign, and summit attendees hope to get a sense of which options the president favors. The summit also is expected to focus on a new phase in the war effort: how to dislodge the terror network from Raqqa, its de facto headquarters in Syria. Much of the U.S. troop build-up is focused on Raqqa, even as Iraqi-led forces are still trying to dislodge ISIS from the Iraqi city of Mosul.
Trump’s decision to keep the coalition intact suggests at least some agreement with his predecessor’s approach. Another such signal: Trump has kept on Obama-era official Brett McGurk as the U.S. envoy to the coalition. (One eye-catching change from the previous administration, however, is that the alliance is now called the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS instead of the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL.)
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi will attend the summit this week, and he met Monday with Trump. After meeting with the president, al-Abadi told an audience at the U.S. Institute of Peace that Trump had promised U.S. support for Iraq “will not only continue but will accelerate.” The support, however, is unlikely to include the deployment of large numbers of American troops, the Iraqi leader said.
The Arab League, the European Union and Interpol also are expected to send representatives to the summit. The administration has invited a handful of technology company officials to attend the summit, in the hopes that they can offer insight into how to better counter-act the Islamic State’s online propaganda, according to a source familiar with the planning.
Sources say one goal of the summit is to obtain financial commitments from coalition countries to help stabilize and rebuild the zones of conflict, although the gathering is not being billed as a pledging conference. Last week, however, the Trump administration put forth a budget proposal that envisions massive cuts to U.S. foreign aid.
The budget proposal is unlikely to go anywhere in Congress, but Trump aides, including the secretary of state, have said that they expect other countries to step up their own foreign aid programs in response to U.S. cuts. That has led to some wariness among foreign officials.
“It might be a call for others to step in more, to do more, particularly to the European Union,” a Turkish diplomat said, before adding: “It would be more advisable to see the other type of approach, which is doing more so that you would encourage others to do more.”
State Department spokesman Mark Toner has said that the budget proposal won’t affect U.S. plans to help Mosul recover because “a lot of that money has already been set aside” and budgets are planned out months or years in advance.
Coalition countries also hope the administration will lay out some vision of how to deal with other conflicts in the region that have helped fuel the rise of the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda and other terrorist outfits. That includes what to do about the Syrian civil war, where the regime of Bashar Assad, with Russian and Iranian backing, is still fighting rebel groups.
Many suspect, however, that the administration will focus more on how to counter Iran’s growing influence throughout the Middle East, a move that may cheer Sunni-majority Arab countries fearful of Shiite-majority Iran’s rise.
The person close to the Trump administration said there are still many internal debates going on about how to prioritize targets. The secretary of defense, James Mattis “tends to view it as an ISIS strategy,” the person said. But others in the administration “view it as ‘We can’t just fight ISIS, we need to fight Iran.’”
Left unclear still is the administration’s position on Russia, a U.S. rival of which Trump has repeatedly spoken highly despite allegations that the Kremlin interfered in the 2016 U.S. election to help him win.
Moscow is not a member of the coalition and is not expected to attend this week’s summit. But Trump has said he wants to coordinate with the Kremlin to fight against the Islamic State. Many observers suspect that means Trump will let Russia, and by extension Assad, have their way against rebel groups trying to oust the Syrian government.
As foreign officials jockey for side meetings and gather for plenary speeches, there’s another aspect of the Trump administration’s presentations that many will pay attention to: the rhetoric. Will Trump and his aides use loaded terms such as “radical Islamic terrorism,” even if it turns off moderate Muslims who eschew any link between terrorism and their religion? Or will they avoid such language as Obama and his aides did?
Already, there have been reports of splits within the Trump team about linking Islam and terrorism too closely. Trump himself has repeatedly linked Islam to terrorism, and some of his aides, such as Bannon and adviser Sebastian Gorka are also known for their hard-line views on Islam. But McMaster, the national security adviser, has argued for softer language.
Foreign diplomats interviewed said that, considering the scale of the challenges ahead, most people attending the summit will probably avoid picking a fight over rhetoric.
The European government official said he hopes “the State Department will use more neutral vocabulary” but, “I think nobody will criticize it at this forum.”