While his Presidency is increasingly plagued by the incompetence of his administration and the increasingly clear connection between his surprising win and Russian involvement in the election, Donald Trump has gone on his first foreign trip as U.S. President.
The first stop was Saudi Arabia and Mr. Trump delivered a speech designed to “pivot” away from his anti muslim rhetoric during the campaign. You can find the full transcript of the speech at CNN and an insightful commentary from the New York Times.
In essence Trump finally makes it clear that the war on terror is against the terrorists and not all of Islam. He also stressed the importance of bringing an end to the Israeli – Palestinian conflict. This is undoubtedly a step in the right direction although Trump’s speech also contains a few points which I find to be naive at best and potentially very misguided.
In the first place Trump made it clear that his administration will not interfere in the domestic affairs of the Arab states and urged each of them to crack down on terrorists in their countries and “to drive them out”. What is concerning is for the autocratic governments of the Gulf States, their is no fine line between “terrorists” and political activists. In fact, many analysts feel that part of the root cause of the problems in the region is the lack of basic human rights and that this is what is fueling the terrorists message. By endorsing any and all actions against islamic terror, Trump also condones any and all actions against domestic opposition which is perhaps the only real long term solution to the problem!
Secondly, Trump either is not aware of the special role that Saudi Arabia and the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam has done to increase intolerance across the Arab world. During his speech he talks about ” honestly confronting the crisis of Islamist extremism and the Islamist terror groups it inspires. And it means standing together against the murder of innocent Muslims, the oppression of women, the persecution of Jews, and the slaughter of Christians”.
Trump is, of course, talking about ISIS but in fact women and jews have few rights in the Gulf States and the Kingdom and it is Wahhabism that has largely inspired the extremists.
The third part of the speech which is troubling is that Trump clearly paints Iran as the common enemy and has positioned the U.S. on the Sunni side of the looming conflict between the Sunni monarchies and Shia Iran. In this line he also endorsed the joint military operation that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States are conducting in Yemen.
According to Stratfor, the go to web site for geo-political analysis, the Trump administration’s approach is to go back to the past and line up alongside the United States’ traditional allies in the region. Their understanding is that this is the price to pay for more vigorous Arab help in the bringing about the final destruction of ISIS.
The problem with this approach, in my view, is that it pretends that the Arab Spring simply did not happen and ignores the fact that hundreds of millions of muslims live without the basic trappings of freedom and democracy which we, in the West, take for granted. Barak Obama was heavily criticized by all sides for the American response the Arab Spring. Some said the U.S. did not do enough to support the protestors and others that it did not support our traditional allies. What he did do, at least, was to make a speech in May, 2011, which articulated the values of freedom and democracy which are the very basis of the Unites States. You can find the transcript of that speech here and I for one find it much more compelling than Trump’s shameless appeasement of the Arab Sheiks.