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Trump’s Historic Speech in Riyadh

US President Donald Trump (C) receives the Order of Abdulaziz al-Saud medal from Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud (R) at the Saudi Royal Court in Riyadh on May 20, 2017. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

The Struggle Between “Good and Evil” Requires Unity

by Ronald J. Granieri*

At this writing, President Trump has concluded the first leg of his first international trip, his visit to Riyadh. Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Rome, and Brussels all lie ahead.

Although Trump arrived in Saudi Arabia beset by domestic problems, both the President and his Saudi hosts did all they could to ensure a smooth visit. The Saudi government went out of its way to provide a warm welcome. King Salman presented Trump with a gold medal; billboards with the smiling King and President lined the highways.

The centerpiece of the first day was the signing of a massive $110 billion agreement in which the Saudis promised to buy American military equipment and invest in infrastructure. This deal, which will support jobs in both the US and the Kingdom, has been welcomed not only by the governments of the two allies but also by the major defense contractors who stand to profit from the sales. It fulfills both President Trump’s promise to support American firms and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud’s “Vision 2030” plan of reforming the Saudi economy and encouraging more diversified industry. As a sign of its significance to both ruling families, the deal was brokered in part by President trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who reportedly telephoned the CEO of Lockheed Martin at a crucial moment in negotiations to get the major contractor to reduce the price of some items. As a further mark of closer relations, the governments of Saudi Arabia and the UAE also announced a $100 million donation to a fund for women entrepreneurs sponsored by the President’s daughter, Ivanka Trump.

According to the official press release on that first day, the meetings “underscored the deep and longstanding commitment of the United States to the security, stability, and prosperity of Saudi Arabia.” The two sides pledged cooperation to fight “violent extremism” and counter threats from ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Iran.

President Trump reinforced these themes in his eagerly-anticipated speech before more than four dozen leaders of Muslim states on Sunday afternoon. During the presidential campaign, Trump had insisted on attacking “radical Islamic Terrorism,” and had charged that politicians such as President Obama, who avoided those terms for fear of alienating the broader Muslim world, were too weak to defeat it. Perhaps chastened by the realities of governing, President Trump abandoned his harsh rhetoric on Sunday, referring to “Islamist extremism” instead, and arguing that the fight was not between faiths or civilizations, but between those who want to destroy and those who want to protect life. This is still a struggle between “good and evil” according to the President, but it is a struggle that can unite people of all faiths against the forces of violence and disorder. Muslim leaders in general and Saudi Arabia in particular are crucial partners in the President’s vision.

With this generalized idea of cooperation against a common foe, what President Trump offered the Islamic world on Sunday is not much different from what has been said by his predecessors.

Nevertheless, other passages of the speech do reflect a shift in American strategy and approach to the region. Despite his exhortations to deal with the extremists in their own societies, President Trump asserted that the United States had not come to “lecture” its allies, nor should those allies expect that the Americans will do all the heavy lifting. “The nations of the Middle East,” he warned, “cannot wait for American power to crush this enemy for them.” Rather, they must work together to confront extremism on their own. Also, in a jab at the ambitious democracy-promotion goals of the Bush and Obama administrations, Trump promised that the United States will “make decisions based on real-world outcomes, not inflexible ideology,” and will pursue “gradual reforms, not sudden interventions.” As he put it, “We are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship. Instead, we are here to offer partnership — based on shared interests and values — to pursue a better future for us all.”

Such phrases encapsulate the Trump Administration’s promise of a “transactional” foreign policy based on realism and immediate interests. That approach has been welcomed in Saudi Arabia, where President Obama’s pursuit of rapprochement with Iran was viewed as dangerously naive.

Instead of a broad-based critique of Islam, Trump and his speech writers (including, perhaps ironically, Bannon protégé Steven Miller) reserved their strongest attacks for targets of mutual dislike— Iran and its proxies, and the extremists in al-Qaeda and ISIS, terrorists whose actions cannot be justified by their faith, who the President portrayed as political threats rather than a symptom of some deeper cultural force.

What is especially interesting about the President’s speech is the degree to which a presentation based on realism was also drenched in religious terminology. At one point, he warned terrorists: “If you choose the path of terror, your life will be empty, your life will be brief, and your soul will be fully condemned.” Elsewhere, when he reminded the assembled leaders of their responsibilities, he declared that the people “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 and yearns for peace.” “If we do not stand in uniform condemnation of this killing,” he admonished, “then not only will we be judged by our people, not only will we be judged by history, but we will be judged by God,” and also declared, “With God’s help, this summit will mark the beginning of the end for those who practice terror and spread its vile creed.”

US President Donald Trump (3L), US First lady Melania Trump (2L), Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud (C), and Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (3R) pose for a group photo during the inauguration of the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology in Riyadh on May 21, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Trump’s rhetoric left no doubt that he was expecting a lot from his partners: “A better future is only possible if your nations drive out the terrorists and drive out the extremists. 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.” He also made clear that the United States might provide material support for this struggle, but expected the assembled states to “[do] their fair share and [fulfill] their part of the burden.”

The immediate response of the audience was positive, but the long-term consequences remain to be seen. The assembled leaders did gather later in the day to inaugurate The Global Center for Combatting Extremist Ideology in Riyadh. The speech’s combination of practical interests and religious rhetoric covered two important wings of the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia.

This visit is just the beginning. Following through on this meeting will require a great deal of stamina on all sides. Will President Trump be up to that challenge? The President was remarkably, even uncharacteristically, subdued during his speech, relying on the urgency of his words rather than the force of his delivery to communicate his intentions. Was that by design, or necessity? Afterward, he surprised the press pool by skipping a scheduled evening event (his daughter Ivanka spoke in his stead) and returning to his hotel. His staff reported that the President was “exhausted” on the third day of his trip. He still has a week to go, before returning home to face his domestic critics, and to begin translating Sunday’s words into deeds.

*Ronald J. Granieri is Executive Director of FPRI’s Center for the Study of America and the West, editor of FPRI’s The American Review of Books, Blogs, and Bull, and host of Geopolitics with Granieri, a monthly discussion program at FPRI.

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