This weekend, President Trump gave a major foreign policy speech in Saudi Arabia. The good news is that Trump’s remarks were not a direct attack on Islam. The bad news is everything else.
The speech was the first that Trump has given abroad, and it was also the first addressed to the Muslim world. It had an odd collection of themes. It was somehow conciliatory and preachy at the same time. Trump even managed to channel the always popular George W. Bush by declaring, “This is a battle between Good and Evil.”
It wasn’t all biblical oversimplifications though. If you know some of the recent history with respect to the Saudi Arabia and terrorism, it also offered some very dark comedy.
Here are a few of the highlights.
One of These Things Is Not Like the Other
In an early effort to highlight the cooperation that is already happening between the US and the allied dictatorships of the Middle East, Trump attempted to list out the contributions being made. Here’s what he said [emphasis added]:
Many are already making significant contributions to regional security: Jordanian pilots are crucial partners against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Saudi Arabia and a regional coalition have taken strong action against Houthi militants in Yemen. The Lebanese Army is hunting ISIS operatives who try to infiltrate their territory. Emirati troops are supporting our Afghan partners. In Mosul, American troops are supporting Kurds, Sunnis and Shias fighting together for their homeland. Qatar, which hosts the U.S. Central Command, is a crucial strategic partner. Our longstanding partnership with Kuwait and Bahrain continue to enhance security in the region. And courageous Afghan soldiers are making tremendous sacrifices in the fight against the Taliban, and others, in the fight for their country.
The structure of this paragraph is designed to highlight all the useful actions being undertaken against terrorist groups in the region. And earlier in the speech, Trump characterized terrorism in a pretty standard way as actions that target and kill innocent people. As he put it, “This is a battle between barbaric criminals who wish to obliterate life, and decent people of all religions who seek to protect it.”
The problem is that the paragraph above casually lumps in the Houthis with ISIS, as if their motivations and actions are more or less the same. This is not at all true.
ISIS ultimately grew out of the Al Qaeda in Iraq insurgent group. They espouse an extreme, fundamentalist form of Sunni Islam, often called Salafism or Wahhabism. They openly advocate a civilizational war between Sunni Muslims and the rest of the world, and they use terrorist attacks as a strategy to try to provoke this outcome. ISIS has claimed responsibility for almost all of the high profile terrorist attacks that have struck Western targets in the past couple of years.
Notably, ISIS and Al Qaeda share much of the same ideology. The groups are at war with each other in Syria, but the dispute is largely a question of strategy.
In contrast with ISIS’s global ambitions, the Houthis are a distinctly national movement inside of Yemen. The Houthis follow a version of Shia Islam that is not at all similar to ISIS, and they have not carried out any terrorist attacks against Western targets. The group took power at the beginning of 2015, overthrowing an unpopular Saudi-allied dictator in the process. (Technically, this dictator was elected, but he was the only one on the ballot.) In response, the Saudis–with US backing–launched a war against the Houthis to try to put the dictator back in charge, or in the Saudi’s parlance, to restore the legitimate government of Yemen.
Clearly, ISIS and the Houthis are not similar movements. They emerged from very different contexts, have totally different ambitions, attack different targets, and have an entirely different religion. Another inconvenient fact, the Houthis are actually at war with Al Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate.
So to recap, according to Trump’s speech, Jordanian pilots are helping combat terrorism by bombing ISIS. And the Saudi’s are helping combat terrorism by fighting a group that doesn’t attack the West but does fight against Al Qaeda.
In other words, he nailed it. Let’s move on.
Making Orwell Proud Again
The unintentionally humorous parts of the speech came when Trump praised the creation of two new collaborative programs to fight terrorism. Here’s Trump:
Later today, we will make history again with the opening of a new Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology — located right here, in this central part of the Islamic World.
I am proud to announce that the nations here today will be signing an agreement to prevent the financing of terrorism, called the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center — co-chaired by the United States and Saudi Arabia, and joined by every member of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
It’s strange to have Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States take a leading role in combating extremism and terrorist ideologies. After all, there is strong evidence to believe that these same countries have promoted the terrorist groups in question.
One compelling piece of evidence for this comes from the Saudis themselves. In a report originally written up at The Financial Times (FT has a firm paywall, but it’s cited here), the Saudi foreign minister told Secretary of State John Kerry the following:
Daesh [ISIS] is our [Sunni] response to your support for the Da’wa,
The Da’wa refers to the dominant Shia political faction in Iraq, which is friendly with Iran. Essentially, the Saudis were angry that Iraq War 2 had the effect of putting Shia and Iranian-friendly factions in power in Baghdad. In context, they were also upset by the Iran Nuclear Deal because the sanctions relief promised in that deal would allow the Iranian economy to expand rapidly and give Iran more prominence and influence in the region. The Saudis see Iran as a major regional rival, and they view any increase in Iran’s power as reducing their own.
Anyways, in response to these negative trendlines, the foreign minister said the Saudis helped back ISIS as a strategic response.
The other strong evidence comes from the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, the government released a DIA memo from the fall of 2012 that provided an analysis of the situation in Syria and Iraq. Note that this was before the formal rise of ISIS. This was the relevant quote:
THE WEST, GULF COUNTRIES, AND TURKEY [WHO] SUPPORT THE [SYRIAN] OPPOSITION… THERE IS THE POSSIBILITY OF ESTABLISHING A DECLARED OR UNDECLARED SALAFIST PRINCIPALITY IN EASTERN SYRIA (HASAKA AND DER ZOR), AND THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT THE SUPPORTING POWERS TO THE OPPOSITION WANT, IN ORDER TO ISOLATE THE SYRIAN REGIME…
This extraordinary quote notes that the West and the Gulf States–the countries Trump is addressing in the speech–armed the opposition, knowing that it risked creating a “salafist principality”, that is, an Islamic state. And instead of being a serious calamity, this was actually an interim goal, because it would weaken Assad.
In practice, this didn’t turn out so well.
Early in Trump’s speech, he offered a line that was apparently designed to preemptively address concerns about the fact that Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy with an abysmal human rights record:
We must seek partners, not perfection—and to make allies of all who share our goals.
It was the old “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” argument, just with slightly new verbiage. So what if Saudi Arabia executes a lot of people and is starving millions of helpless people in Yemen; we’re not seeking perfection, after all.
Whatever the merits of this strategy may be, it’s clear that the standard is not applied evenly. It seems that certain countries are permanently affixed to Trump’s enemy list no matter what shared interests exist. Near the end of the speech, Trump made this abundantly clear:
But no discussion of stamping out this threat would be complete without mentioning the government that gives terrorists all three—safe harbor, financial backing, and the social standing needed for recruitment. It is a regime that is responsible for so much instability in the region. I am speaking of course of [drum roll?] Iran.
(In the actual speech, there was no apparent pause before the country was named. It had to be a suspenseful moment for the audience though–I can think of quite a few countries that would have been better suited to fill in the blank.)
That’s right. In Trump’s version of reality, Iran is the greatest promoter of terrorism. And this is so, even though it’s clear from the rest of the speech that terrorism is mostly referring to the indiscriminate actions of groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda–groups that Iran is literally fighting a war against in Iraq and Syria (on the US’s side).
Iran is also alleged to be primarily responsible for the region’s instability, but in fact, this honor probably belongs to the US. After all, Iran didn’t launch Iraq War 2. Iran clearly had no interest in promoting an uprising against its ally in Syria. And Iran didn’t embark on a war of choice to overthrow the government of Libya and throw that country into chaos.
But in Trump’s foreign policy speech, none of this history made an appearance.
Instead of bringing a radical change to the US’s failed foreign policy, President Trump seems content to stick with the usual false narratives offered by US leaders. So Iran remains enemy number 1, and Saudi Arabia is a vital partner in combating extremism.