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Here's what Trump needs to accomplish in Saudi Arabia

  • President Trump's visit to Saudi Arabia is the beginning of a crucial new policy.
  • Trump is hoping to bolster ties with the Saudis and challenge Iran.
  • This is also a way to prove he can execute a difficult deal.
President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump make their way to board Air Force One before departing from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on May 19, 2017.
Mandel Ngan | AFP | Getty Images
President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump make their way to board Air Force One before departing from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on May 19, 2017.

With a special counsel investigation into the Trump administration marring the president's still young tenure, it can be easy to look at his trip to the Middle East as some form of a distraction. But if Trump can exercise discipline and stick to the script, the trip could help prove that he and his team can execute a complicated and vital policy agenda.

And that's why it's starting in Saudi Arabia, where the stakes are highest. Under the Obama administration, Saudi Arabia was severely undermined in its longstanding conflict with its arch enemy Iran. Trump is going to try to reverse that.

It's not that Saudi Arabia wasn't due for a fall. Even in the years after 9/11, the Saudis remained either the world's top or second-biggest funding source for Islamic terrorism and jihadist propaganda. One of the fiercest critics in recent years was Donald Trump himself. Trump posted on Facebook last year that Saudi Arabia wants "women as slaves and to kill gays." And during one political debate with Hillary Clinton he said the Saudis were "people that push gays off buildings" and "kill women."

But here's the thing: Iran is worse. And by signing an agreement that gave Tehran a path to nuclear weapons and enriched the Ayatollahs to the tune of more than $100 billion, the Obama administration has made things worse in the strife-ridden region.

ISIS is also worse. And while some experts believe Saudi Arabia was at least unintentionally responsible for the rise of ISIS, the country has made very obvious efforts to fight the terrorist regime since 2014. Iran is fighting ISIS too, but the Trump administration obviously feels more comfortable working with the Saudis against that enemy.

"President Trump can't realistically hope for an immediate boost in the polls or any real respite from his critics at home. But he can get a significant shot in the arm internationally as he plays the role of deal maker and promoter of a wider peace."

The silver lining is that some other traditional foes in the Middle East are now banding together. One of the worst-kept secrets over the past two to three years is that Israel and the Saudis have been co-operating in efforts to fight ISIS and defend themselves against Iranian aggression. For the Saudis, this makes practical sense. As much as the Saudis may hate Israel, they fear Iran and ISIS more. "The enemy of my enemy is my friend" is a major theme here.

Enter President Trump who is unlikely to retract his earlier attacks on Saudi Arabia, but is appears willing to make amends with Riyadh and use a strengthened relationship as leverage against the Iranians and ISIS.

He's expected to formally announce a massive $300 billion arms sale to the Saudis that includes a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile system, littoral combat ships designed to fight in shallow water close to shore, and precision guided munitions designed to limit civilian casualties.

Much of the deal was actually put together by the Obama administration, but put on hold last year. Now, President Trump can take credit for being the savior in what was a deteriorating relationship.

President Trump can't realistically hope for an immediate boost in the polls or any real respite from his critics at home. But he can get a significant shot in the arm internationally as he plays the role of deal maker and promoter of a wider peace. The religious imagery of the trip in total is also a powerful statement to much of his base, as he will follow his visit to Saudi Arabia with a stop in Israel and then the Vatican.

But Trump must avoid stumbles and scandals, which could make this trip about him and not about new policy. The Trump team is making a choice of the lesser of two evils, and that's not always an easy argument to make. The good news is that with the Israelis doing the same thing, Trump has some decent strategic and diplomatic backup on this one. The Saudis are making a similar tough choice by ignoring Trump's past rhetoric and polls that show that most Saudi people believe the president is "anti-Muslim."

One of the most serious criticisms of President Trump is not that his policies are bad, but that he has no comprehensive and consistent policies at all. With this trip beginning in Saudi Arabia with a $300 billion deal in tow and a clear message for the Iranians, the White House can start to answer that criticism with more than just lip service.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.