U.S. foreign policy under the Trump administration has often seemed erratic or confused, but Trump has consistently eliminated any public differences with a handful of client states in a bid to have “no daylight” with them. In some cases, the vow to make sure there is “no daylight” between the U.S. and the other government has been explicit, and in others it can be recognized by the total identification of the U.S. with the policies of the other government. Conflating U.S. interests with the interests of clients is not new, but it is still remarkable how completely Trump has tried to blur American interests with Israeli and Saudi ones in particular since taking office. The candidate who repeatedly emphasizes putting America first is a reliable booster of whatever these governments choose to do regardless of the harm it does to our security and reputation.
Some of this may be driven by a desire to be seen as undoing Obama’s work. Because Obama was (ludicrously) perceived to be neglecting Israel and Saudi Arabia and occasionally criticized them, he was accused of forsaking “allies.” Trump seems to love nothing so much as reversing Obama’s few good foreign policy decisions, so he has given these governments full and uncritical backing. Some of this is clearly driven by hostility to Iran, which seems to be one of the few consistent things in Trump’s worldview. Trump treats any state that is opposed to Iran as if it is beyond reproach, and he lets the Iran obsession override any other considerations. Finally, some of it is based in the misguided belief that these states are “allies” that should be supported no matter what. Despite the fact that the U.S. has no treaties with these governments and has no formal obligations to them, they are routinely described as “allies” and their concerns are given undue weight because of the interest groups that lobby on their behalf. Instead of pushing back on this or demanding that the so-called “allies” pay their fair share (as he often does with our treaty allies), Trump has been eager to give these clients whatever they want. Instead of chiding their leaders for any mistakes they might make, Trump praises them to the skies. While the client governments must enjoy all this, it doesn’t serve American interests in the slightest.
A “no daylight” standard in relations with other states is never desirable, and it is frequently dangerous for the patron government that adheres to it. Maintaining “no daylight” in practice doesn’t just mean that there is no public criticism of the other state’s actions, but that the U.S. must also conform our policies to theirs. In order to prevent major disagreements from spilling into public view, the tendency has been to align policies so closely that no major disagreements take place. That isn’t sustainable in any bilateral relationship, because two states’ interests inevitably differ and sometimes diverge widely.
No two states can maintain “no daylight” without one or both of them sacrificing their genuine interests to maintain the fiction of total agreement. Since both Israel and Saudi Arabia have increasingly divergent interests from ours, and since both have become increasing liabilities over time, ensuring that there is “no daylight” between them and the U.S. requires subordinating our preferences and policies to theirs on a regular basis. We have seen Obama and Trump doing this with their indulgence of the disgraceful war on Yemen, we saw it in Trump’s endorsement of the campaign against Qatar, and we see it again with Trump’s determination to blow up the nuclear deal. The danger in avoiding “daylight” with these clients isn’t just that it forces the U.S. to act against its interests, but that it risks dragging the U.S. into wars with their enemies to satisfy “allies” that are not really allies at all.
Disagreements with clients are unavoidable, but at some point their interests and ours diverge so much that it ceases to make sense to have them as clients. When clients contribute little or nothing to our security, but just create one headache after another it is time to reassess the value of the relationship. When they get us involved in their unnecessary and failed wars, as the Saudis, Emiratis, and others have done in Yemen, reevaluating the merits of the client relationship is long overdue.