President Trump’s speech at the Arab Islamic American Summit in Riyadh on May 21 was rich in generalities and open to broad interpretation. For example, the president promised to advance “security through stability,” which is a bit like advancing happiness through joy or wealth through prosperity. He spoke of “Principled Realism” as the basis of U.S strategy, which is just as meaningless as Hillary Clinton’s pledge to pursue “principled pragmatism.” Whereas President Obama spoke of seeking relations with the Muslim world based on “mutual interest and mutual respect,” Trump spoke of “common values and shared interests.”
Cutting through the empty rhetoric, Trump framed his remarks around several faulty assumptions. If these fallacies wind up serving as the basis for future policy, they will erode support for human rights and ultimately harm U.S. interests.
First, Trump spoke of “a new chapter” and of “new approaches,” but there is nothing new about a U.S. approach to the Middle East rooted in alliances with authoritarian governments. U.S. Middle East policy has largely been based on this model for the last seventy years, with a few short intermissions. Such an approach may have, debatably, made sense during the Cold War, when Arab allies like Saudi Arabia were reliably anti-Communist and a bulwark against Soviet expansionism, but the monarchies and authoritarian regimes of the Arab region began to look anachronistic as more representative, democratic government spread throughout the world in the 1970s and 1980s. Consistent with this global trend, people in the Arab region began to demand better governance and rulers that respected their rights and dignity.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, the refusal of authoritarian Arab states to respond to the aspirations of their growing populations has presented a constant challenge to the United States. Successive administrations have struggled with crises, from Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991 to the 9/11 attacks ten years later to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq that followed. The Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 showed again the instability created by unreconstructed authoritarian rule in the region.
Alarmed by the tide of change sweeping away entrenched authoritarian rulers, Saudi Arabia and other GCC states have spent the last five years trying to shore up the rickety authoritarian state order, with distinctly mixed results. A Saudi-led military intervention in Bahrain has succeeded in pushing back popular demands for more representative government on the island, and the Saudis, together with other GCC states, have been the major backers of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s restoration of military-backed authoritarian rule in Egypt, but these countries remain deeply divided. A major Saudi military intervention in Yemen has embroiled the country in a prolonged war with substantial material and reputational costs. Meanwhile, the devastating war in Syria continues, spreading instability throughout the region and beyond, and conflicts also continue in Iraq and Libya.
By aligning the United States uncritically with a Saudi-led authoritarian regional order, Trump may hope that he is turning the clock back to a more stable time. But the protracted collapse of the Arab authoritarian order has been one of the root causes of both the spread of terrorism over the last twenty years and the region’s many unresolved conflicts.
Second, Trump referred several times to the “shared values” of the United States and his hosts. Yet Trump himself tweeted in June 2016 that the Saudis “want women as slaves and to kill gays.” Leaders of GCC states proudly assert that they “do not share our values,” so it is hard to understand why Trump should insist on pretending that they do. Despite Saudi claims of moderation and co-existence, they jail non-violent critics, deny women basic rights, forbid religious freedom and propagate a harsh, sectarian interpretation of Islam around the world that has inspired the ideology of terrorist groups like ISIS and al-Qa’eda. Just a few weeks before Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom used its influence to persuade its allies on the UN Security Council, Egypt and Senegal, to block a move to add the Saudi ISIS affiliate to the UN’s list of terrorist groups. Simply put, the values that the Saudi government stands for and propagates are very much part of the problem, not the solution. By pretending otherwise, Trump is willfully turning his back on reality.
Third, one of the few specific policy proposals in the speech was a call on “all nations of conscience to isolate Iran.” Trump is right to point to the destabilizing activities of the regime in Tehran, but many of those activities are viewed in Iran as a defensive response to threatening rhetoric such as that used by Trump during his trip, and to the increasing U.S. military presence in Qatar, Bahrain, Iraq , Afghanistan, and Syria. Such a one-sided position in the regional conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which has taken on an increasingly inflammatory sectarian tone in recent years thanks to the policies of both sides, will only escalate violence and instability.
It was more than ironic that Trump spoke about the “suffering” of the Iranian people on a day when 57% of Iran’s voters had used the narrow opportunity of a controlled election to signal strong support for political reform and greater personal freedom. In Iran’s major cities, people celebrated taking part in something that has never happened in Saudi Arabia, a competitive election. A majority of Iran’s citizens signaled that they hope for a brighter future based on moderation and coexistence, but Trump’s willful disregard of their reality will empower Iranian hardliners who use hostility towards Iran as a pretext to perpetuate authoritarian rule.
President Trump’s illusory world—new approaches that are, in fact, hackneyed retreads of failed policies, alleged common values belied by his host’s conduct and statements, and a one-eyed view of Iran that will only strengthen drivers of extremism there, fueling conflict throughout the region—presents many dangers to U.S. interests and to global efforts to counter terrorism.
By Neil Hicks
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