OPINION: Trump gets it right in Saudi Arabia
For all the sound and fury over his public remarks and tweets in Washington, President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia has been a very different story. The president gave the right speech in the right place at the right time. There will still be critics on issues like human rights and Yemen, but the president had a different focus — and almost certainly the right one.
First, he needed to reassure the Saudis, the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and the other leaders of the 50 some Islamic countries meeting in the Kingdom that he was not anti-Islamic and did not see Islam as an enemy. He did just that — and in ways far more suited to the culture of his audience than the take-no-prisoners rhetoric he often employs in the U.S.
He then went on to say that he stood before them “as a representative of the American People, to deliver a message of friendship and hope. That is why I chose to make my first foreign visit a trip to the heart of the Muslim world, to the nation that serves as custodian of the two holiest sites in the Islamic Faith.” Courtesy and respect don’t make headlines, but they do make friends and strategic partners. They are particularly critical in the Arab world, and particularly important when the speaker sometimes treated all of Islam as an enemy during his campaign and implied that Islam itself might be hostile and extremist.
The president then went on to make it clear that America’s search for strategic partners meant strengthening America’s oldest friendships, which include several Arab states. He promised that “America will not seek to impose our way of life on others, but to outstretch our hands in the spirit of cooperation and trust…Our goal is a coalition of nations who share the aim of stamping out extremism and providing our children a hopeful future that does honor to God.”
He then stated his respect for Arab history and culture, the need for economic progress, and noted that “Saudi Arabia is home to the holiest sites in one of the world’s great faiths. Each year millions of Muslims come from around the world to Saudi Arabia to take part in the Hajj. In addition to ancient wonders, this country is also home to modern ones — including soaring achievements in architecture.” He mentioned the positive character of one strategic partner after another — reinforcing the importance of the U.S. strategic partnership with that country in the process.
When it came to the core of his speech — the fight against terrorism — the president’s choice in words really mattered. He avoided phrases like “Islamic extremism,” but repeatedly made it clear that the U.S. would focus on the threats posed by “terrorists and extremists.” He carefully avoided the financial aspects of burden sharing — something all too necessary in a Saudi Arabia spending something like three times the percent of its GDP on defense as the U.S. and nearly six times the percentage of the average NATO ally.
But, he was perfectly clear about what he expected from the countries present when he said, “There can be no coexistence with this violence. There can be no tolerating it, no accepting it, no excusing it, and no ignoring it...America is prepared to stand with you in pursuit of shared interests and common security...But the nations of the Middle East cannot wait for American power to crush this enemy for them. The nations of the Middle East will have to decide what kind of future they want for themselves, for their countries, and for their children.”
He went on and said, “A better future is only possible if your nations drive out the terrorists and extremists. Drive them out. Drive them of your places of worship. Drive them out of your communities. Drive them out of your holy land. And drive them out of this earth...That means honestly confronting the crisis of Islamist extremism and the Islamist terror groups it inspires...It means standing together against the murder of innocent Muslims, the oppression of women, the persecution of Jews, and the slaughter of Christians….Religious leaders must make this absolutely clear...And political leaders must speak out to affirm the same idea: heroes don’t kill innocents. They save them.”
These are strong messages, but they are also ones that resonate throughout the Islamic world, and for the reasons the president also stated in his speech, “The deadliest toll has been exacted on the innocent people of Arab, Muslim and Middle Eastern nations. They have borne the brunt of the killings and the worst of the destruction in this wave of fanatical violence…Some estimates hold that more than 95 percent of the victims of terrorism are themselves Muslim.”
He pointed to “a humanitarian and security disaster in this region that is spreading across the planet. It is a tragedy of epic proportions…The true toll of ISIS, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, and so many others, must be counted not only in the number of dead. It must also be counted in generations of vanished dreams.”
These are words that the vast majority of Muslims agree with, and ones that clearly rise above fear, prejudice, and isolationism. They are the values Muslims want in a strategic partner. They do not compromise any aspect of the fight against extremism and terrorism.
President Trump was also careful to emphasize the threat from the Iranian government as another core aspect of the U.S. strategic partnership with the Arab world, but he also focused on the Iranian government and not the Iranian people, many of whom clearly do not support its extremism. He called Iran “a government that speaks openly of mass murder, vowing the destruction of Israel, death to America, and ruin for many leaders and nations in this room…Among Iran’s most tragic and destabilizing interventions have been in Syria. Bolstered by Iran, Assad has committed unspeakable crimes.”
Many press reports will focus on some $110 billion in arms sales, and the fact that the president not only implied the U.S. would back away from efforts to change Saudi Arabia, but would remain committed to Bahrain, Egypt, Turkey, and a successful outcome in Yemen. The president also touched on trade and investment, and Saudi Arabia’s 2030 plan for reform.
At the same time, he did not dodge the issue of Israel and the need for broad religious tolerance. He said, “For many centuries the Middle East has been home to Christians, Muslims and Jews living side-by-side. We must practice tolerance and respect for each other once again, and make this region a place where every man and woman, no matter their faith or ethnicity, can enjoy a life of dignity and hope...If these three faiths can join together in cooperation, then peace in this world is possible, including peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”
One speech cannot change Arab or Muslim perceptions of the president or the U.S. as an ally. Much will depend on the years and actions that follow. Words really matter, however, and especially in the Middle East. This time, the president used the right words to start rebuilding the foundations of America’s strategic partnerships in the Muslim world and Middle East, and to deal with truly urgent threats. This speech is the right beginning — in remarkably well crafted terms — and it deserves bipartisan and expert respect.
Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.