President Donald Trump continues to benefit from the soft bigotry of low expectations. In a major speech in Saudi Arabia on Sunday, he avoided the incendiary Islamophobic rhetoric of his campaign last year and instead adopted the more moderate language of his predecessors, calling Islam “one of the world’s great faiths.” “I stand before you as a representative of the American people, to deliver a message of friendship and hope,” Trump said. “That is why I chose to make my first foreign visit a trip to the heart of the Muslim world, to the nation that serves as custodian of the two holiest sites in the Islamic faith.”
That the president did not say “Islam hates us,” nor “radical Islamic terrorism,” was apparently enough to warrant praise. Axios summed up the conventional wisdom that Trump “gave a measured, disciplined speech to the Muslim world in Saudi Arabia on Sunday, reading entirely off TelePrompTer.” National Review called the speech “pretty good.” On CNN, Rick Santorum ludicrously argued that it would convince the courts to allow his ban on immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries. “To judges in this country who are looking at his immigration ban, it’s going to be very hard to say, ‘This is a Muslim hater, he hates Islam, you know, he wants to ban Muslims,’” said the former Pennsylvania senator.
It’s foolish to give Trump credit for showing the elementary common sense needed to distinguish between the acts of a small number of terrorists and the faith of more than a billion people. It’s also premature to declare that Trump has “pivoted away from his strident assessment of Islam as a religion of hatred,” as The New York Times did in its report. One speech does not a tolerant Trump make. Peter Beinart, writing on Trump’s speech for The Atlantic, has a more convincing theory to explain the chasm between Trump’s hateful campaign and his more politically correct presidency: “Trump is a coward. He says wildly offensive things when the objects of his derision aren’t around, but crumples when he actually meets them.”
This is true of many of Trump’s dealings with foreign leaders. He invariably drops his earlier tough talk—promising to withdraw from NAFTA and label China a currency manipulator—and becomes much more propitiative. But Trump’s cowardice doesn’t fully explain why he was an outright bigot on the campaign trail and has mollified foreign leaders as president. Trump is a salesman who tailors his pitch to different audiences. In his rally speeches, Trump is addressing the masses, but now he’s making his pitch to the elites of other nations. When Trump advocated for a Muslim ban, he was appealing primarily to Islamophobes in America, and perhaps also issuing a warning to prospective Muslim immigrants. With his speech in Saudi Arabia, Trump was sending a message to a much smaller audience: the Saudi royal family and like-minded autocrats in the Middle East.
Unlike George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Trump did not deliver a message for the Muslim masses. He carefully eschewed talk of liberty or democracy, which has been standard presidential rhetoric since Woodrow Wilson. Indeed, Trump made sure that the autocrats in the room knew that the days of democracy promotion were over, saying, “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.” This was the sole part of his speech that faced widespread criticism across the political spectrum. “I think it’s in our national security interest to advocate for democracy, freedom and human rights,” Senator Marco Rubio said. “I would tell you the White House and I have a different approach on the issue of human rights.” Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff called it “a terrible abdication of our global leadership when it comes to advocating for people who are the subject of persecution.”
What was disturbing about Trump’s speech was how completely it accepted the Saudi royal family’s view of the Middle East, where Saudi Arabia is the beacon for modernizing Islam and Iran is the chief instigator of violence. “Saudi Arabia’s Vision for 2030 is an important and encouraging statement of tolerance, respect, empowering women, and economic development,” Trump declared, an absurd claim considering that Saudi Arabia is a theocracy where women can’t even drive and atheists are beheaded. By contrast, Trump described Iran as a “regime that is responsible for so much instability in the region.... From Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen, Iran funds, arms, and trains terrorists, militias, and other extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos across the region. For decades, Iran has fueled the fires of sectarian conflict and terror.”
As Beinart noted, Trump’s speech “endorsed the agenda that Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab dictatorships have been urging for years: Help us confront Iran and kill ‘terrorists’ (which includes anyone who opposes our hold on power) and all will be well.” By so wholeheartedly embracing the core tenets of Saudi foreign policy, Trump is closing the small but real opening with Iran since the 2015 nuclear deal orchestrated by the Obama administration. Trump’s anti-Iran turn is especially regrettable since Iranian voters reaffirmed their own desire for greater openness to the West by re-electing President Hassan Rouhani, the most moderate candidate in the race, by a landslide on Saturday.
An anti-Iran policy makes political sense for Trump. It’s a way to please conventional Republicans who are worried about his foreign policy heterodoxy on Russia. It unites different factions of his government, bringing together the military hawks, like national security adviser H. R. McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis, and the Islamophobic nationalists like chief strategist Steve Bannon. And it helps Trump justify the 10-year, $350 billion arms deal he just struck with the Saudis. As the Times reported on Saturday, “Trump and his team made clear they were willing to publicly overlook repression in places like Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations whose leaders met here over the weekend—as long as they are allies in areas the president considers more important, namely security and economics. To the president and his advisers, human rights concerns can be an impediment to the flow of commerce between countries and a barrier to beneficial partnerships for the United States.”
In his speech, Trump described his foreign policy approach as “Principled Realism,” but there is nothing realistic about the United States’ buying into the Saudis’ sectarian understanding of the region as principally a conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. The Saudi royal family uses this framework to justify their Sunni dictatorship, writing off all social upheaval—whether inside Saudi Arabia or in neighboring countries—as the fault of Shiites. Earlier presidents thought America’s interests were better served in defusing such sectarian divisions and critiquing the dictatorships that oppress Sunnis and Shiites alike.
Though a profane and irreligious man, Trump sees the Middle East and broader foreign policy through a religious prism (a sign, perhaps, of Bannon’s influence). It’s no accident that his foreign trip is organized, as he said in his speech, around “visiting many of the holiest places in the three Abrahamic Faiths”—Riyadh, Jerusalem, and Rome (the Vatican). But in saying this, Trump implicitly accepts Saudi claims to leadership of global Islam, comparable in authority to the Vatican as seen by Catholics. But just as many Christians reject the centrality of the Vatican, so many Muslims (not just Shiites) would have trouble accepting Saudi Arabia leadership. For America to start taking sides in such theological disputes risks inflaming sectarian tensions.
In broad outlines, Trump’s foreign policy overlaps with what any conservative Republican would do. After all, Saudi Arabia has been a pillar of American power in the region since World War II, and Iran a regional foe since the 1979 revolution. The Trumpian twist is his emphasis on bilateral relations—prioritizing deal-making with the Saudi elite—at the expense of soft power that engages with the broader public. Trump is offering the Saudi elites a blunt deal: “The U.S. will arm Saudi Arabia, and shut up about human rights, if you join our fight against terrorism.”
Every time Trump follows a script and avoids demonizing an entire people, he gets praised for being “presidential.” Yet the actual implications of Trump’s speech in Saudi Arabia are disturbing: Trump is committing the U.S. to an unwavering alliance with one of the most repressive regimes in the world, and is dismissing the democratic aspirations of the Muslim masses. Morality aside, his policy risks inciting tension and conflict. In effect, Saudi Arabia’s enemies, including those fighting for democracy and human rights, would also start seeing America as a hostile force. So let’s call Trump’s foreign policy what it really is: Unprincipled Dealism.