How does a man famous for a call on stopping Muslims coming to the U.S. become President and eventually choose as his first international diplomatic stop, the most Muslim country on the planet? There’s no easy answer to that, but it’s what happened. Some will say the choice of Saudi Arabia was savvy — an outreach of salvage and repair to the global Muslim community. Others will say it should not have been his first visit. Still others simply scratch their heads and wait to see what unfolds, for better or worse. Admittedly, if there is method to his madness, it is hard for even seasoned political observers to cipher, looking on from the outside.
For some of Trump’s base and others concerned about fundamental Islam and Islamicism, either modeled in Saudi Arabia by Shari’ah or expressed through jihadist terror around the world, his “detante” with the Sunni kingdom in the Riyadh speech may appear to contradict the strong rhetoric of his early primary campaign days. Does the rhetoric of his speech, however, really indicate a softening shift in terms of policy?
Setting aside the man (if possible, for just a moment), to pay attention to the speech itself, there is an important shift. But the significant shift is not to an ill-advised friendliness with a Salafist country, or a merely rhetorical trend from hard-to-soft, but is rather a substantive policy shift which actually reflects the ideas the man brought to office. Keep in mind MAGA, America First, and Trump’s insistence on the campaign trail that intervening in the Middle East has been a mistaken policy that ultimately hurts Americans, as well as the people, including Muslims, who are ravaged and made refugees by such disruption.
Cutting through the verbal jots and tittles, his message was, essentially: We are dealing with you so you can do the necessary work in your own part of the world; we expect and will help you to squeeze lifelines of terror in your own part of the world; we encourage you to foster your fellow Arabs, Muslims, and other native citizens at home, in your own part of the world; we are not telling you what to do in your own part of the world — although, we hope what you do will be good for everyone in your part of the world, as we so intend to do for our citizens, in our part of the world.
In other words, the U.S. is shifting responsibility for the politics of the Arab world to the Arab world. The most telling sentence of the whole speech is this one: “Our partnerships will advance security through stability, not through radical disruption.” It was embedded in a paragraph that arguably best sums up the whole shift: “Our friends will never question our support, and our enemies will never doubt our determination. 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. And, wherever possible, we will seek gradual reforms – not sudden intervention. We must seek partners, not perfection—and to make allies of all who share our goals.”
The days of U.S. sponsorship of disruptive initiatives to ostensibly spread western democracy, overtly or covertly, if he succeeds, are at sunset. In Donald Trump’s view, this is a foreign policy shift vital to the re-assignment of priorities and resources geared to protecting and putting America First, and to pursuing global peace. This is completely consistent with what the candidate-now President has repeatedly made clear as his agenda from the start. The hopeful nuance of this pivot is a retention of reasonable engagement and partnership from the U.S. which keeps this shift from qualifying as an abandonment of support for reform or outright isolationism; it is neither. What Trump presented is an America who is transferring the locus of responsibility but who also stands willing to help. In his business parlance, it could be a win-win. And, perhaps, there was no more appropriate place to unveil this policy shift than the seat of conservative Islam, home to Islam’s most sacred sites, from whence all the Muslim world will surely get the message.
And just in case we weren’t sure by the end of the speech, his not-so-subtle clue was to finish with “God Bless the United States of America.” Read the transcript at the POTUS Facebook page here.