Ami Magazine, May 24, 2917
By Yossi Krausz
President Trump has hosted a variety of world leaders in Washington during these rst few months of his administration, but this week he got his turn to jump onboard Air Force One and head out to foreign countries.
The president’s itinerary will be concluding with meetings with the EU, NATO and the G7 in Brussels and Sicily. But the first half of his tour has a religious theme, with President Trump reaching out to three major religions.
First, his trip to Saudi Arabia included a speech explicitly directed at the Muslim world. Then, in a trip to Israel, Jews, as well as Muslims and Christians, were given time with the president. Finally, he was headed to Rome and the Vatican to meet with the pope before the secular section of his trip would begin.
There has been some tension between the White House and the Israeli government recently, both due to an apparent leak of Israeli intelligence (see this week’s “Closer Look”) and a spat over the status of the Kosel. Trump and the pope traded rhetorical barbs during the presidential campaign.
But perhaps most tricky for the president was the trip to Saudi Arabia. Much of his campaign rhetoric was aimed not just at Islamic extremism but also at Muslim refugees, and his political opponents, particularly on the left, made claims of anti-
Muslim bigotry against Trump and several of his campaign advisers. On the other hand, President Trump’s tilt away from the closer relationship with Iran that President Obama’s White House had been attempting has made him popular among Sunni Muslim political leaders, including in Saudi Arabia. And there has been special out- reach to the Saudis by Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and close adviser.
President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia was therefore highly anticipated—and feared—by some. Of particular interest has been his speech, made to the Arab Islamic American Summit, reported to have been written in part by Stephen Miller, one of the architects of the travel ban from several Muslim countries.
Would the president offend Muslims? Would he break new ground in the war on terrorism? And now that he’s done, how did he do?
WHAT WENT ON
President Trump danced with the Saudis, dined with them, and received a medal. While the optics of the trip were variegated and interesting (see the accompanying article), there were four substantive actions related to the visit.
Two were, in essence, business deals. The president signed a massive arms deal with the Saudis, worth $110 billion, that will give the kingdom advanced ships, tanks and other vehicles, the THAAD missile defense system, and a variety of cyberwar- fare and airborne surveillance tools.
One interesting tidbit about the deal was focused on in a New York Times article, which quoted administration of officials as saying that in the earlier preparations for the deal, back in Washington, Jared Kushner personally called Marillyn A. Hewson, the CEO of Lockheed Martin—the defense company that is the prime contractor on the THAAD anti-missile system—and negotiated prices with her on behalf of the Saudis.
According to the story, the Saudis in the room were astonished at his hands-on approach to getting the deal done.
The arms deals mark a change in policy from the Obama administration, which had slowed such deals due to the Saudis’ offensive in Yemen and concerns about civilian casualties there.
The other economic action, reached at a joint American-Saudi economic summit timed to coincide with the president’s trip, was a set of business deals worth more than $200 billion over the next ten years, according to participants. That included investment partnerships, including a $40 billion infrastructure fund announced by the private-equity group Blackstone.
President Trump added the two together in his speech: “Yesterday, we signed his- toric agreements with the kingdom that will invest almost $400 billion in our two countries and create many thousands of jobs in America and Saudi Arabia.”
Two other initiatives were made during the trip, which President Trump mentioned during his speech.
One was the opening of the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology, a high-tech center intended to monitor and counter extremist propaganda in traditional media and on the Internet. (Al Arabiya reported that “all phases of data processing and analysis are done in no more than six seconds once the data or comments are posted on the Internet,” and that the center will work “to refute the hate and extremist speech and pro- mote concepts of moderation, accepting the other, and the production of media content that confront the content of the radical thoughts.”)
The second was the oddly named Terrorist Financing Targeting Center, which President Trump said was “an agreement to prevent the financing of terrorism.” The
center, he added, is being co-chaired by the United States and Saudi Arabia, and joined by every member of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Most of the president’s speech was on the subject of terrorism, and while he struck a more aggressive note than President Obama had in similar speeches, observers suggested that he had avoided insulting Muslims.
One inflammatory phrase he didn’t use, which he had criticized President Obama for never using, was “radical Islamic terror.” Instead, for a crowd likely sensitive to his word choices, his printed speech used “Islamist extremism,” which implies a political ideology rather than a religious belief. In fact, the president ended up saying “Islamic extremism,” but the White House said that he had mistaken the two terms due to exhaustion caused by traveling.
The president’s speech was striking for its repeated use of religious language and references to religious values. For example: “Religious leaders must make this absolutely clear: Barbarism will deliver you no glory; piety to evil will bring you no dignity. If you choose the path of terror, your life will be empty, your life will be brief and your soul will be condemned.”
And he called on Muslim countries to take action, in a stirring section: “America is prepared to stand with you— in pursuit of shared interests and common security.
“But the nations of the Middle East cannot wait for American power to crush this enemy for them. The nations of the Middle East will have to decide what kind of future they want for themselves, for their countries and for their children.
“It is a choice between two futures—and it is a choice America cannot make for you. “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.”
He went on to discuss the contributions made by Muslim countries to the war on terror. Unsurprisingly, the president also spent a significant part of the speech discussing Iran and pointing anger at them for turmoil in the Middle East.
More surprising than the negative mention of Iran were positive mentions of Israel. Saudi Arabia had reportedly refused to grant entrance to Israeli reporters for the Trump visit. And the president also repeatedly and prominently mentioned Jews as victims of terror, though he emphasized that Muslims suffer in the largest numbers from their extremist coreligionists.
THE TRUMP DOCTRINE?
What was the deeper meaning of the speech by the president?
We spoke to Dr. Daveed Gartenstein- Ross, a counter-terrorism expert, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and the CEO of the terrorism analysis firm Valens Global.
Dr. Gartenstein-Ross said that to him, the most important part of Mr. Trump’s speech were two paragraphs in which he seemed to outline his administration’s doctrine in regard to militant groups and foreign policy in general.
“For our part,” the president said, “America is committed to adjusting our strategies to meet evolving threats and new facts. We will discard those strategies that have not worked—and will apply new approaches informed by experience and judgment. We are adopting a principled realism, rooted in common values and shared interests.
“Our friends will never question our sup- port, 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 in flexible 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.”
The phrase “security through stability,” Dr. Gartenstein-Ross said, suggests a rebuke of both the Iraq war and the Libyan war, and probably of President Obama’s enthusi- asm for the Arab Spring. And the concept of seeking gradual reforms seems, he said, to have relevance not just in regard to human rights, but to other issues as well.
“If you look at the Obama administration’s first year, there was already an identifiable paradigm on foreign policy,” he said, and this may be the Trump administration’s paradigm, summed up succinctly. He noted that the White House’s recent aggressive actions in Syria would suggest a contradictory position, but that contradictions in foreign policy aren’t uncommon.
Dr. Gartenstein-Ross told Ami that the importance of the counter-terrorism initiatives introduced during the president’s trip is impossible to evaluate right now because no details have been given.
“The announcements are really just a name,” he said, “and not an indication of what the program is going to be.
“They’re both interesting, though, because in regard to ideology and terrorism financing, Saudi Arabia has thus far been much more part of the problem than part of the solution. So, the question this raises is: Are these initiatives going to whitewash Saudi Arabia, or are they a harbinger of a turning point?”
CHAIN OF DECEPTION?
Cynthia Farahat, a Middle East analyst, co-founder of a liberal Egyptian political party and fellow at the Middle East Forum, told Ami that there was one aspect of President Trump’s speech that she was heartened by.
“It was great to see an American president who doesn’t apologize for or patronize in regard to American values, after eight years of President Barack Obama, who did, especially in his Cairo speech, which was more like a surrender speech,” she said.
But in regard to the anti-terrorism initiatives Mr. Trump mentioned and his rhetoric on terror, she was skeptical.
“They announced a new global center for combating extremist ideology. My question is, will it be in the same square where they will perform the beheading of Ahmad Al Shamri for being an atheist, or will it be in a different area?”
The speech was disappointing in the way it didn’t touch on Saudi Arabia’s own extremism, she said. “I found it a betrayal of the reformists rotting in Islamic prisons across the world because of Saudi Arabia’s global tyranny over Muslim-majority countries.” Blasphemy laws pushed by the Saudis, she said, are a major difficulty for reform movements in countries like Egypt.
“Unfortunately, this has been an idea in the Republican Party,” Mrs. Farahat said, “that you have to side with Saudi Arabia to oppose Iran. I believe that both President Obama’s support of Iran and President Trump’s support for Saudi Arabia lead to the same place.”
She also said that President Trump was too complimentary of King Salman, who was tied—by a New York Times article published in 2009—to the funding of terrorism in Pakistan and Bosnia, while he was still a prince. “I would like to not see this American president dancing with a man funding al-Qaeda in Pakistan.”
Ms. Farahat was critical of the arms deal with Saudi Arabia, saying that it would give them “more ammunition to hunt the people America should be supporting, who are victimized by their governments.”
But she also said that she believed that the billions of dollars in business deals announced between the US and the Saudis are dangerous to American security. “Guess where the Saudis spend their money? They invest it in infrastructure, real estate, media and education. That’s exactly where you don’t want a terror-funding regime to put its money in the US. And only last September, the Saudi government was threatening to damage the US economy if Congress overrode President Obama’s veto of a bill allowing terror victims to sue foreign governments.” The Saudis were blackmailing the US government last year, now we’re making friendly deals with them.
That Saudi Arabia was the host for the initiatives for countering terrorism is “laughable,” she said. “The foreign policy of Saudi Arabia is funding al-Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra and similar terrorist groups, and its internal policies are similar to those of ISIS. Now you’re giving them legitimacy to be the representative of those countering Islamic terrorism, which pulls out the rug from under the real reformers, who are rotting in Islamic prisons.”
She had another observation about the president’s visit to Saudi Arabia, one based on her former experience as a Coptic Christian in Egypt. The awarding of the Order of Abdulaziz to the president by King Salman, which entailed the placement of a chain on President Trump’s neck by the king, she said, has bad connotations in the Arab world.
“First of all, the medal that President Trump received is actually the second- tier medal in Saudi Arabia,” she said, as opposed to how the media had portrayed it. “The highest medal is the Great Chain of Badr.”
And a chain around an infidel’s neck has symbolism in Islamic countries. “In my native Egypt, they called me ‘blue- boned’—and referred that way in general to Coptic Christians. That’s because they used to force Christians and non-Muslims to put chains around their necks, and their necks would get bruised. That’s what this chain represents: acceptance of your status as an inferior, submissive dhimmi.”
The acceptance of that medal, which previous US leaders have received, should be discontinued by presidents, she said.
In any case, the success of countries in combating terrorism in the days and years ahead will be the true measure of the importance and success of the president’s efforts in Saudi Arabia. •