The defining impression of President Trump’s recent foreign tour was probably formed by his few days in Europe which clearly reflected mutual discomfort between Trump and leaders of our European allies. For his part, Trump berated the Europeans for failing to meet their commitments for increased defense spending and conspicuously failed to mention America’s commitment to mutual defense under NATO’s Article V, (which his rhetoric over the past year had put in doubt.) Further cause for irritation and concern was provoked by Trump’s refusal to indicate whether America would remain a party to the Paris Accord on climate change.
By the time Trump returned to the United States, many may have largely forgotten the seeming success of his first stop on the foreign tour in Riyadh Saudi Arabia. Trump had been warmly welcomed by his hosts and had been eager to respond in kind. Indeed, his Riyadh visit was cited most frequently to remark on how differently Trump had approached European leaders. For example, the head of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass, put it succinctly in a tweet, “public lecturing of NATO allies [is] unseemly & counterproductive; hard not to see contrast between this & overly-solicitous treatment of Saudis.”
In Riyadh, speaking at a conference of Arab leaders, Trump made a tactful but radical departure from the Islamophobic language of his campaign that U.S. courts have cited in finding that his initial and revised bans on travel from Muslim countries amounted to religious discrimination. Indeed, Trump in Riyadh was careful not even to employ the term “radical Islamic terrorism” for which he had repeatedly faulted Obama’s refusal to use.
Trump also made only the most glancing reference to the issue of human rights which had long been a major concern of Middle East policy under previous administrations, both Democratic and Republican. To underscore his differing outlook Trump assured his audience that “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. Instead, we are here to offer partnership, based on shared interests and values.” Shared interests were reasonably apparent–defeat of ISIS and al-Qaeda and resisting Iran—but what those shared values are was less clear. It was also unclear what his courtship of the Arabs would yield, and whether the massive arms sale to Saudi Arabia would contribute to the stability of the region.
While Trump did not refer to the age-old and continuing conflict between Shias and Sunnis, he made a spirited attack against Shiite Iran, and his speech was uniformly viewed as having embraced the Sunni cause. But the matter is not so simple and the benefits of that embrace may be elusive. While nearly all of the attendees at the Riyadh conference were from Sunni nations, and welcomed Trump’s harsh assessment of Iran, there was one major participant for whom that message must have been somewhat awkward: Iraq President Fuad Masum. Masum is himself a Sunni Kurd, but Iraq’s population is two-thirds Shia, its government has strong ties to Iran, and Shiite militias backed by Iran have a strong presence in Iraq. His message was also blurred by the fact that the most significant extremist groups, al-Qaeda and ISIS, are Sunni, and that the military operations against them are primarily in Iraq and Syria, countries with governments backed by Iran.
Trump made only a glancing reference to the conflict in Iraq, noting that “In Mosul, American troops are supporting Kurds, Sunnis and Shias fighting together for their homeland.” While it now appears that ISIS will be driven from the portion of Mosul that it still holds, there is uncertainty and grave concern as to how the Sunni population of Mosul and its province, Nineveh, will be governed. An informative analysis of the complexities was provided by the Financial Times, “Iraq fears for its future once Isis falls.” The conference concluded with the Riyadh Declaration subscribed by all participants. The Declaration was described in detail by the Arabian media (and Russia’s RT) but totally ignored by mainstream media in the United States. One paragraph of the Declaration provided:
The leaders welcomed the readiness of a number of Islamic countries to participate in the Islamic Military Coalition to combat terrorism to provide a reserve force of 34,000 troops to support operations against terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria when needed. They welcomed the progress achieved on the ground in the fight against ISIS, praising the participation of Arab and Islamic countries and their support for the International Alliance against ISIS. (Emphasis added)
It was not announced, nor has it been reported, how the figure of 34,000 was arrived at, the specific nations participating, or the number of troops to be contributed by each. There is reason to doubt that such a military force from Sunni nations (and presumably the United States) will ever be seen in Iraq or Syria. Nevertheless, the lack of attention to this commitment, and the entire Declaration, is surprising.
Trump made an impassioned plea to Muslim nations to act against terrorists and extremists in their own countries:
A better future is only possible if your nations drive out the terrorists and 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.
Riyadh was, ironically enough, a fitting venue for such a call to action. Osama bin Laden and fifteen of the nineteen terrorists who struck on 9/11 were Saudis, and equally important, much of the subsequent funding for Islamic extremists has come from Saudi Arabia. Yet Trump did not refer to that fact even indirectly and his focus on Iran obscured it. As Fareed Zakaria pointed out in the Washington Post:
But it is wildly inaccurate to describe [Iran] as the source of jihadist terror. According to an analysis of the Global Terrorism Database by Leif Wenar of King’s College London, more than 94 percent of deaths caused by Islamic terrorism since 2001 were perpetrated by the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and other Sunni jihadists. Iran is fighting those groups, not fueling them. Almost every terrorist attack in the West has had some connection to Saudi Arabia. Virtually none has been linked to Iran.
In fact, a rigid and intolerant strain of Islam, Wahabbism is not only the prevailing sect in Saudi Arabia but has had an impact far beyond its borders. A May 17 article in London’s Telegraph summarized its importance:
In the 1970s, with the help of funding from petroleum exports and other factors, Saudi charities started funding Wahhabi schools (madrassas) and mosques across the globe and the movement underwent “explosive growth.”
The US State Department has estimated that over the past four decades Riyadh has invested more than $10bn (£6bn) into charitable foundations in an attempt to replace mainstream Sunni Islam with the harsh intolerance of its Wahhabism. EU intelligence experts estimate that 15 to 20 per cent of this has been diverted to al-Qaida and other violent jihadists.
The movement now has worldwide influence inspiring the ideology of extremists worldwide.
In a May 24 op-ed piece in the Washington Post, Newt Gingrich hailed Trump’s speech as a “titanic foreign policy shift” and gushed on:
Never before has an American president tried so clearly to unite the civilized world, including the nations of the Middle East and Africa, against the forces of terrorism. Never before has an American president issued so direct a challenge to those nations to do more in the fight. And never before has an American president so plainly put the ultimate responsibility for eradicating terrorism on the nations of the region. In doing so, Trump’s speech implicitly repudiated the approaches of his two immediate predecessors and promised instead what he characterized as a “principled realism,” based on a clear-eyed view of America’s interests, security and limits.
Charitably put, Gingrich’s enthusiasm seems overstated. There was good reason to call upon Muslim nations to do more in fighting Islamic extremists. But it is doubtful whether that challenge will have much effect, particularly in the absence of a coherent and sustained American engagement in the region. And in terms of uniting the rest of the “civilized world,” it may be noted that Trump’s escalating alienation of our European allies is hardly helpful. Finally, attempting to place “ultimate responsibility for eradicating terrorism on the nations of the region” does not so much repudiate Obama policy as double-down on it. That approach has its appeal, but its limitations have been demonstrated. Placing responsibility on others is fine to a degree, but the ultimate responsibility of protecting America from terrorists, in the Middle East or elsewhere, cannot be outsourced.