On Sunday, President Trump gave a well-received speech in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The speech was praised by both the right and left: by the right for its focus on the problem of terrorism, by the left for its restraint.
Now, here is my admittedly unpopular take: the speech was a break from Obama’s nasty habit of ripping America publicly and blaming America for the problems of the Muslim world. But other than that, it was empty and largely pointless, and actually hinted more at American isolationism in the region than in involvement in helping to fight terrorism.
In essence, the speech offered nothing new.
Trump did mention “Islamic extremism.” He stated that fighting terrorism would mean “honestly confronting the crisis of Islamic extremism and the Islamists and Islamic terror of all kinds.”
But then Trump walked it back. Trump reiterated that he did not believe there was a clash of civilizations. Instead, he said that Islamic extremism isn’t truly Islamic, or even related to Islam – it’s just evil that angers God, perpetrated by people who believe not in God but in death. That’s an old Obama chestnut.
Here’s Trump, today:
This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations.
This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life, and decent people of all religions who seek to protect it.
This forces a question: why call it Islamist extremism if it has nothing to do with Islam?
By way of comparison, here’s Obama circa 2016:
[T]his is not a clash of civilizations between the West and Islam. This is a struggle between the peace-loving, overwhelming majority of Muslims around the world and a radical, tiny minority.
Trump also proposed an isolationist view of fighting terrorism. “The nations of the Middle East cannot wait for American power to crush this enemy for them,” Trump stated. “The nations of the Middle East will have to decide what kind of future they want for themselves, for their countries, and, frankly, for their families and for their children. It is a choice between two futures – and it is a choice America cannot make for you.” He encouraged Muslim countries to “drive them out. Drive them out 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’s all well and good, but clearly Saudi Arabia isn’t doing it, and neither are a variety of other Muslim countries. When President Reagan urged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” the implication was that the United States would take an active role in attempting to tear down the wall if the Soviets continued to maintain it. No such assurances came from Trump in Riyadh.
This notion that American power can provide neither a carrot nor a stick toward the Muslim world with regard to helping shape the future of anti-terrorism is not foreign to the left. Here’s what Obama said about it last year: “I was hoping that my [2009 Cairo] speech could trigger a discussion, could create space for Muslims to address the real problems they are confronting—problems of governance, and the fact that some currents of Islam have not gone through a reformation that would help people adapt their religious doctrines to modernity.”
How about Trump’s tough talk on Iran? He mentioned that Iran was a state sponsor of terrorism, but offered no new prescription for fighting Iranian influence, other than these empty words: “all nations of conscience must work together to isolate Iran, deny it funding for terrorism, and pray for the day when the Iranian people have the just and righteous government they deserve.” Here, for the sake of intellectual honesty, is President Obama circa 2011: “Iran has chosen the path of international isolation….The United States will continue to find ways…to isolate and increase the pressure upon the Iranian regime.” Worth noting: it’s not exactly speaking truth to power to dump on Iran while speaking in Saudi Arabia.
This isn’t to say that Trump isn’t better on Iran than Obama – he is, for the simple reason that he’s using Obama’s old rhetoric after Obama abandoned it in favor of Iranian sycophancy and disgusting surrender. But Trump is also not moving to abandon the Iran deal or reconstruct any sanctions regime, or even put enough military pressure on Iran via Syria and Iraq to provide any real threat.
Trump also abandoned any notion of pressing for human rights reforms. He stated, “We are not here to lecture – we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship.” He didn’t speak of freedom or liberty at any point. Actually, Trump explicitly rejected the notion that he ought to push for such things, instead opting for a straw man argument pitting Wilsonian interventionism against hard-nosed realpolitik, with no smidgen of interest in values. “Our partnerships will advance security through stability, not through radical disruption. We will make decisions based on real-world outcomes – not inflexible ideology. We will be guided by the lessons of experience, not the confines of rigid thinking,” Trump stated. Seeking a patina of human rights legitimacy for this perspective, Trump stated, “We in this room are the leaders of our peoples. They look to us for answers, and for action. And when we look back at their faces, behind every pair of eyes is a soul that yearns for justice.” No yearning for freedom, however – that would be too Bush-like. And it might offend the Saudis, who were busily preventing Israeli journalists from entering the country to cover the proceedings and imprisoning dissidents.
Yes, the Saudis are our allies. Yes, we need them. But they need us, too, and the notion that they stand with us against the “oppression of women, the persecution of Jews,” is just asinine.
The speech, summarized, could have read: “Terrorism is bad. It has something to do with Islam, but I’m not really allowed to say that, so Islamic extremism doesn’t actually have anything to do with Islam. Handle it yourselves, but we’ll sell you some weapons, just like Obama did. Trump out.”
Trump did better than Obama did – he noted that the Islamic world has a problem, clearly and concisely. But he offered no carrots and no sticks. His big “victories” amount to the foundation of an empty Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology – a notion that would have made conservatives guffaw had Obama bragged about it. Trump didn’t undermine the image of the United States – which is a huge move away from Obama, who did so at every opportunity. But he also didn’t offer much in the way of a plan, echoed some of the talking points of the Obama administration, and covered it all in a gravy comprised alternatively of tough talk and “hey, it’s none of our business.”
So, far better than Obama. But more neutral than positive.