President Trump did himself a great deal of good in his Riyadh speech, but he left a gaping hole in his approach to terrorism.
To begin with the positive, he was presidential, indeed statesmanlike, in his delivery and in his conduct all weekend. The event itself — a meeting between the president of the United States and heads of government from more than 50 Muslim states — was unprecedented. To that was added sessions with Saudi leaders and leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Trump was tough as nails on Iran, which will gratify his Saudi hosts and the many Americans who found the Obama approach unconscionable. Obama saw Iran as a potential partner in the Middle East and subordinated every American interest to getting his nuclear deal done. Trump made it clear that he has entirely jettisoned this approach.
Trump’s analysis of the terrorists was also powerful: They are nihilists, he suggested, not Muslims. Thus, he said: “Every time a terrorist murders an innocent person and falsely invokes the name of God, it should be an insult to every person of faith. Terrorists do not worship God. They worship death.”
Trump was tough as nails on Iran, which will gratify his Saudi hosts and the many Americans who found the Obama approach unconscionable.
But two factors undermined the impact of Trump’s strong words about terrorism and extremism.
The first was that the speech was too discursive. He tried to cover too much, mentioned too many countries, and even included mention of bilateral U.S.–Saudi trade and arms deals. These had no place in a major speech about Islamist extremism. Trump called his announcement of the various deals totaling $400 billion “blessed news,” a bad misuse of the term “blessed” in a speech largely about religion.
The second factor was far more significant. Twice Trump called Islamist terrorism and extremism an “ideology,” suggesting that he understands it is a belief system. But he appeared to be arguing that military action alone would defeat it. It won’t: Islamist extremism is a terrible and dangerous idea, and it will not be defeated by military action alone. We need other, better ideas to battle against extremist ideas.
To put it another way, Trump’s military approach would work if terrorists had dropped out of the sky like creatures in some action movie about the invasion of Earth. But terrorists don’t descend upon us like that: They actually emerge from the societies whose leaders he was addressing. Why? That is the great question that Trump buried. Why in the last several decades do Muslim societies produce brutal terrorist murderers? What’s the explanation? George W. Bush, relying on the 2002 Arab Human Development Report and many other Arab opinions, suggested that the “freedom deficit” was at the heart of the problem. Trump presented no theory, and no solution — unless we think we can kill all the terrorists if only we cooperate more.
Two examples of the problem: Trump complimented Bahrain in his speech, saying it “is working to undermine recruitment and radicalism.” This is quite wrong. The Sunni royal family’s oppression of the country’s Shia majority is in fact creating a breeding ground for radicalism and opening a door for Iranian subversion. Trump also, though with better reason, stayed completely away from the embarrassing fact that Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi Islam is at least a gateway drug for extremism. All around the world, Saudi money is being used to suppress indigenous forms of Islam. Saudi preachers, mosques, and schools teach that local and moderate versions of Islam are impure and must be replaced by the only true version: the Saudi Wahhabi version. But that version of Islam treats unbelievers with contempt and often hatred, oppresses women, and opposes democracy.
It would have been impolite and in fact nasty for Trump to say this in public as a guest in Saudi Arabia, but one wonders what he said privately. Trump announced the new Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology, to be located in Saudi Arabia and presumably funded by them. But combating extremist ideology must start at home for the Saudis, and it is to be hoped that Trump told them so in his private sessions.
Trump did use the word “reform” in his speech, and the word “justice,” but his main message about Muslims societies that are giving rise to terrorists was that we would not raise this question. He said: “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. Instead, we are here to offer partnership based on shared interests and values.” What are those values? Equality for women? He did not say so with clarity. Liberty? Not mentioned. Religious freedom for non-Muslims? Hinted but not stated.
Trump appeared to attack what I would call a straw man, but the speechwriters no doubt thought the target was George W. Bush and Barack Obama:
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.
This approach will win kudos from most of those in the room, but will it be effective in ending terrorism? Partnerships with repressive regimes may in some cases exacerbate rather than solve the problem for us. Gradual reform is exactly the right approach, but will we see President Trump pushing President Sisi of Egypt (with whom he is friendly), or Erdogan of Turkey, or the Bahrainis, for gradual reform?
This visit to Riyadh has cemented old friendships and showed the Sunni Muslim world that we are on their side against Iran and its dreams of Shia hegemony. It offered American help in the military, intelligence, and police actions needed against terrorism. But it offered no explanation of the origins of terrorism and extremism, and no suggestions as to how we and our Muslim allies can change those conditions so that the terrorists do not gain new cadres every year.
— Elliott Abrams is senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of Realism and Democracy:American Foreign Policy after the Arab Spring, to be published in September by Cambridge University Press.