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Trump Speech in Riyadh Suggests Similar Approach to His Predecessors

By Blaise Misztal

Monday, May 22, 2017

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Although billed ahead of time as a speech on Islam, President Trump’s remarks in Riyadh on Sunday focused less on religion than on reformulating U.S. Middle East policy. While comparisons have been made with President Obama’s first address on this issue in Cairo in 2009, the better comparison is with President Obama’s address to the 2013 United Nations Assembly. Although Trump laid out his administration’s major strategic objectives in the Middle East—pursuing stability by defeating terrorism and countering Iran—the speech provoked many questions about how it will pursue those goals. It also suggested that Trump’s approach to this issue as president may have more in common with the previous two administrations than with his own campaign rhetoric.

While there are obvious symmetries between the first major foreign speeches of the Obama and Trump presidencies—given in Muslim countries, referencing Islam, trying to understand its connection to terrorism—the purpose of each was markedly different. In Cairo, Obama spoke directly to all Muslims. Trump, on the other hand, both in the optics and the content of his address, spoke to the leaders of Muslim-majority countries. Where Obama focused directly and immediately on the perception of conflict between Islam and the West (“We meet at a time of tension between the United States and Muslims around the world”), Trump described the purpose of his speech more narrowly and in geopolitical terms (“to advance security and stability across the Middle East”).

President Trump’s speech in Riyadh demonstrated continuity with previous administrations. 

This resembles much more closely, in purpose if not substance, President Obama’s 2013 exposition of U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East. Then, Obama confronted the aftermath of the Arab Spring uprisings—a coup that deposed Egypt’s democratically elected, Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated government, spiraling violence in Syria, Assad’s use of chemical weapons—and questions, from home and abroad, about how the United States would approach these challenges.

With those same problems persisting some four years later, President Trump used his speech in Riyadh to present his view of the challenges facing the Middle East, the interests the United States has there, and how he will tackle the former and protect the latter. And the most fundamental message Trump delivered, much like that of Obama, was that the United States seeks peace in the Middle East. This was a message the president delivered repeatedly and in positive terms. He spoke of the Middle East as a place of beauty and one that “should not be a place from which refugees flee, but to which newcomers flock.” Pledging U.S. determination to bring about that goal through “partnerships [that] will advance security through stability,” Trump was also realistic and restrained in what American power could and would achieve alone, telling the assembled leaders of Sunni Muslim nations that they “cannot wait for American power to crush this enemy for them.”

In this respect, Trump’s speech echoed the findings of BPC’s Task Force on Managing Disorder in the Middle East, which similarly has argued that the United States must seek a “sustainable order at sustainable cost” in the region. Also, like BPC, President Trump identified two main obstacles to stability in the Middle East: “Islamist terror” and Iran. However, the speech was short on specifics about how exactly the Trump administration plans to pursue these goals.

Major strategic questions that policymakers will have to answer as they craft a strategy along the lines Trump laid out include:

What is the relationship between defeating Islamist terrorism and isolating Iran?

Trump rightly noted that Iran is a major sponsor of terrorism and supports groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas that are responsible for much violence. But the primary terrorist threat that the president has focused on, ISIS, is a Sunni jihadist group that Iran is also committed to battling. Does the Trump administration see a connection between the Iranian activities in the region and (Sunni) Islamist terrorism or does it consider them to be two significant and unrelated threats?

President Trump used his speech in Riyadh to present his view of the challenges facing the Middle East

The answer to this question will determine more tactical issues like how the United States prioritizes between the objectives of defeating these two threats, whether it tackles them together or serially, or where it chooses to confront them. Elements of the speech suggested that Trump sees these two threats as intertwined and Syria as the primary battleground (“Responsible nations must work together to end the humanitarian crisis in Syria, eradicate ISIS, and restore stability to the region.”), but are not enough to amount to a clear strategy.

What is the ideology that drives terrorism?

Much of the anticipation of President Trump’s speech centered around whether he would use the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” and how he would describe the linkage of religion, ideology, and terrorism. In the end, the president’s speech demonstrated continuity with previous administrations, and a break from his own campaign rhetoric—making clear that terrorism is not Islam, that “terrorists do not worship God, they worship death.” Trump also used new terminology in referring to this threat, “Islamist extremism and the Islamist terror groups it inspires.” However, he did little to explain how he understands this ideology, its appeal, or its proponents.

At the heart of politicized debates in the United States about how to label the terrorist threat—violent extremism, radical Islamic terrorism, or now Islamist extremism and terror—is the question of how we identify our enemies. Is it only those that actively are carrying out or plotting violence or some great set of those who share similar ideas? If it is the latter, as President Trump’s focus on the ideological drivers of terrorism seems to suggest, then it must be possible to identify the specific ideas that are of concern. In now labeling the threat one of “Islamist extremism,” President Trump has been more specific than previously and used a term that is well understood in the Muslim world. But it will require explanation for an American audience and greater specificity if it is to be operationalized in U.S. policy.

How is an ideology defeated?

Perhaps the most difficult part of the approach outlined by President Trump, and the one that each of the prior two administrations has struggled with, is what sorts of policies and programs can effectively counter the ideology tied to terrorism. Or even, much more fundamentally, what it means to defeat an ideology. As opposed to the much clearer mission of counter-terrorism, identifying and stopping terrorists, the task of combatting ideology is much murkier and this speech offered little in the way of clarity.

In his speech, Trump variously referred to sidelining and isolating extremists (“drive them out of your communities”) or the destruction of their ideology itself (“send its wicked ideology into oblivion”). He also referred to both religious and political forms of push back against Islamist extremism.

Now that President Trump has begun laying out a strategy for the United States in the Middle East, answering these questions will be the next step in actually applying it.