On the campaign trail, Trump told CNN “Islam hates us” and called for the “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the U.S. Last week, just months after two failed attempts at enacting the Muslim ban, Trump delivered a different kind of speech on Islam—one media outlets have described as “soft” and “uncharacteristically inoffensive.”
But Trump’s speech, delivered in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia before an audience of over 50 world leaders, illustrates more than a desire to reset America’s relationship with the Muslim world; it also shines light on the Trump’s administration’s foreign policy agenda.
1. According to Trump, today’s greatest global challenge is defeating terrorism.
Forget climate change: it’s terrorism that threatens to destroy the world at large, says Trump. In his speech, he recounts terrorism’s “violent reach,” calling American cities and entire continents its “victims.” He draws on old familiar tropes, describing extremist ideology as wild fire or cancer, ready to “engulf” societies in violence, promising “devastation” that “will continue to spread.”
That’s why, Trump argues, defeating it is “the one goal that transcends every other consideration.” Here, Trump seems to be channeling George W. Bush, who said that his global war on terror would not “end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.” Also like Bush, Trump depicts the struggle against terrorism as “a battle between Good and Evil.”
Unlike Bush, however, Trump says it’s the Muslim nations who “must be willing to take on the burden,” while the U.S. plays a key supporting role.
2. Trump reiterates his fondness for authoritarianism and neglect for human rights abroad.
Trump began his speech by gushing about Saudi Arabia and its Kings: he expressed his “gratitude” for King Salman’s “strong demonstration of leadership,” praised “the splendor” of the nation, and invoked the memory of the King’s father, founder of Saudi Arabia, who “would be so proud” of his son.
Trump’s unequivocal praise of Saudi Arabia’s repressive rulers should come as no surprise: whether holding a “very friendly conversation” with the brutal Filipino President Rodrigo Duerte, or giving a warm congratulations to Turkey’s President Erdogan for securing autocratic rule, Trump has long demonstrated a fondness for tyrants. In Saudi Arabia, Trump confirmed his commitment to courting the world’s authoritarian leaders.
His words are also a clear message America will turn a blind eye to human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia and beyond. “We are not here to lecture. We are not here to tell other people how to live,” Trumps says pivoting away from America’s traditional foreign policy rhetoric that champions justice, human rights and democracy abroad.
To Trump’s credit, many Middle Easterners (and Americans) would be glad to see the U.S. relinquish its role as hypocritical global police officer. But Trump isn’t just rejecting regime change or intervention; by refusing to advocate for core American values, Trump puts forth a grim vision of international order: one in which $110 billion-dollar business deals eclipse human rights not only in deed, but also in word.
3. Trump calls on all “nations of conscience” to isolate Iran.
Though Trump refuses to acknowledge Saudi Arabia’s poor record of human rights, there’s one place in the Middle East where bad behavior won’t go unnoticed: Iran.
But Iran doesn’t just stifle civil liberties; it fuels “the fires of sectarian conflict and terror.” Saudi Arabia’s Shiite-led rival is also responsible for providing “safe harbor” and “financial backing” for terrorism. (Trump rightly said the same things about Saudi Arabia not that long ago.)
So while crowds of hopeful reformists take to the streets of Tehran to celebrate the re-election of moderate President Rouhani, Trump is calling “all nations of conscience” to turn their backs on Iran. In doing so, he’s fueling the fires of sectarian conflict himself—and placing the U.S. firmly on the Sunni side.
A Speech to Celebrate?
Some see Trump’s words as a sign the administration is softening its tone on Islam and abandoning the clash-of-civilization narrative: a speech “Obama could have given.”
But we shouldn’t just call Trump’s speech “inoffensive.” In it, the President relies on simplistic tropes, overstates the global terrorist threat, and advocates for the unrealistic goal of total eradication. He blames one nation for a region’s complex history of sectarian violence and contributes to the bitter division that sustains it.
Yes, Trump’s speech was uncharacteristically inoffensive. But this cannot become the new low standard we use to evaluate the administration’s foreign policy. We must do more than be grateful when the President sticks to the teleprompter, or refrains from using derogatory language.
So let’s learn from Trump’s own awkward mistakes—and think more critically before we pick up swords and start dancing.