President Donald J. Trump’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia stands in stark contrast with Barack Obama’s first visit to the kingdom in 2009. Indeed, Trump’s entire presidency can be taken as a sharp rebuke to the failures of the Obama Administration. And yet, while Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia when contrasted with Obama’s could be called triumphal—even as it was still respectful—the real contrast is between Trump’s Saudi Arabia address and Obama’s infamous Cairo speech.
It goes almost without saying that President Obama inherited a messy set of foreign policy crises from his predecessor, George W. Bush. In this, he has something in common with President Trump, who now inherits an even bigger mess from Obama. But while Trump and Obama similarly campaigned against the neoconservative foreign policy of the Bush Administration, only Trump seems to demonstrate an awareness of what will be required to correct it successfully. Both Obama and Trump concluded that a reset was needed in America’s interactions with the world (especially in the Mideast, where so much damage had been done), but Obama’s ideas about reset were a mirage based on a flawed understanding of reality and his personal ability to affect it.
When Obama took to the stage in Cairo, he encouraged the worst elements of Egyptian society (and of the entire Arab world) to revolt against the existing political systems in the region, while simultaneously signaling the United States was abandoning the Mideast (thereby creating a power vacuum that America’s Islamist adversaries quickly filled.). Whether Obama intended to give dialectical credence to the revolutionary agitations that ripped the Arab world apart during his presidency or not, that is precisely the effect his words in Cairo—and his subsequent actions in the region—had.
In other words, Trump seeks to reduce existing conflicts to more manageable levels and to prevent future conflicts by establishing a working, pro-United States framework among key actors in the region. Rather than expecting regional actors to join us based on “shared values,” this new framework would be based entirely on mutual strategic interests.
After eight years of this failed policy in the Middle East, Donald Trump ascended to the presidency and appears to have threaded the needle of avoiding the excessive pitfalls of the Bush Doctrine, as well as the failures of the ambivalent Obama Doctrine. Trump’s policy differs from these two extremes in two critical ways: 1) he understands that the United States needs to defeat jihadist terror networks in the region and 2) he understands that the United States cannot ignore the growing Iranian threat any longer. Unlike the Bush and Obama “solutions” to the region, the overall aim of the Trump Administration in the Mideast appears to be the very realistic goal of conflict mitigation through multilateral alliance, deterrence, and trade.
In other words, Trump seeks to reduce existing conflicts to more manageable levels and to prevent future conflicts by establishing a working, pro-United States framework among key actors in the region. Rather than expecting regional actors to join us based on “shared values,” this new framework would be based entirely on mutual strategic interests. This new strategy preserves America’s vaunted position in the Mideast by having local actors do the heavy-lifting—according to the realities on the ground.
When President Trump arrived in Saudi Arabia, one of the first things he did was to announce an historic arms deal between U.S. defense contractors and the Saudi Arabian military. Another critical announcement was the opening of a major counterterrorism center in Riyadh, the Saudi capital. This center is to be the hub in the United States’ and Saudi governments’ fight against radical Islamic terrorism—a fight that Saudi Arabia clearly wishes to wage. While we can never forget that Saudi Arabia is a source of much of the Wahhabī and Salafi violent extremism that we face in the world today (groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS fall under this category), we must also acknowledge that Saudi support for these groups is limited to a handful of disparate actors in the religious and political community there (and likely not the result of official Saudi policy).
Indeed, the schizophrenic relationship between the Saudi government and terrorism is a simple fact of life in that part of the world; Saudi Arabia is not the only country in the Mideast that must contend with having powerful elements within its society whose loyalties are divided. The fact remains that much of Saudi Arabia is steadfastly behind the West in its fight against terrorism. More important, Saudi Arabia and the Sunni kingdoms are equally united in their opposition to the recent growth of influence that Iran has enjoyed.
For the simple cost of a phone call to Lockheed Martin’s CEO, Trump showed immense goodwill toward the Saudis by pushing through a major discount for the Saudis on the THAAD system that Lockheed otherwise would not have granted them. With this act, Trump reaffirmed his image in the region as a man who can get things done fast (that kind of an image is important to leaders in the region).
Unlike his predecessors, the president also refused publicly to chide the Saudis for their various human rights violations. Again, while we should not ignore the human rights abuses that occur (and our emissaries should not stop bringing them up in private), we must accept that there are certain countries whose loyalty we must have—and those countries have little use for Western morality. They are not Western countries and our insistence on holding them accountable to Western standards they show no desire or inclination to adopt is absurd.
America has tried imperiousness in the Mideast under Bush. It made the situation worse. We then tried to take a hands-off approach and create a faux balance of power between a nuclear-armed Iran, the Sunni states, and Israel. That only made the situation intolerable. Trump’s solution is based on realpolitik and it helps to resolve the problems in the region without making America directly responsible (and without allowing for the proliferation of nuclear arms to terrorist-supporting states).
By focusing purely on shared national interests, President Trump has overcome what has been a major impediment to U.S. foreign policy in the Mideast: Arab parochialism.
Trump’s apparent policy of conflict mitigation through alliance-building, deterrence, and trade is actually shrewd. In fact, these are the staples of American foreign policy that have been ignored for too long.
When analyzing the Mideast, one must always remember that the countries there care little for anything other than their strict national interests. They care little for calls about global security, they worry less about how they’re viewed in the international press. What’s important to them is how their neighbors view them and preserving their little piece of sand in that part of the world.
By focusing purely on shared national interests, President Trump has overcome what has been a major impediment to U.S. foreign policy in the Mideast: Arab parochialism. He will next have to address Israeli suspicions about Arab intentions—a messy, though entirely surmountable task (particularly with the twin threats of Iran and jihadist terror hanging over Israel as much as they hang over the Arab world).
One thing is certain, though, Trump is revitalizing classic American concepts of foreign policy and national security. And we are all far safer today as a result.