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Will Trump’s ‘principled realism’ let autocrats off the hook?

- May 24, 2017
President Trump speaks during the Arab Islamic American Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on May 21. (Mandel Ngan/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

On Sunday, President Trump spoke in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, about the challenges facing Islam today. In his speech, Trump appeared to be open to partnerships with the Islamic world, a marked shift from his previous rhetoric concerning Islam. He also announced that his policies toward the region would be governed by “principled realism,” to be “rooted in common values and shared interests.” But “principled realism” may prove to be short on both principles and realism.

From Cairo to Riyadh

President Barack Obama also delivered an address to the “Muslim world” at a similar point in his tenure, on June 4, 2009, in Cairo. Obama’s speech helped create a new sense of potential in U.S. relations with the Middle East and the broader Islamic world. It acknowledged America’s fraught history in the region and lauded the contributions of Islamic civilization and of Muslims in America. It addressed challenges in the region, including violent extremism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nuclear proliferation, democracy and human rights, religious freedom, women’s opportunities and economic development. The speech also set out key principles to govern U.S. relations with the region, including interdependence, partnership, respect for human rights and the rule of law, and a commitment to end suffering,

However, Obama’s address also set unrealistic expectations for changes in the U.S. approach. It wasn’t long until traditional policies and political constraints reasserted themselves, leaving many in his audience disillusioned.

Trump’s Riyadh speech paralleled Obama’s approach most notably in its call for mutual respect and partnership. Both speeches highlighted that the United States will pursue its interests while seeking to respect the interests of other parties. Obama and Trump each acknowledged the region’s prospects and offered U.S. support to realize that potential. Both also directly acknowledged the threat of violent extremism.

But the similarities end there.

The remainder of Trump’s address focused on the need for an increasingly forceful Muslim response to terrorism. Trump rightly acknowledged the extensive toll terrorism takes on the Middle East, noting that those in the region “have borne the brunt of the killings and the worst of the destruction in this wave of fanatical violence,” and that Muslims are by far the largest group of victims of terrorism.

The remainder of the speech then inveighed against terrorists, called for action from Muslim leaders, and articulated some principles around which the United States intends to engage leaders in this effort. Trump posed several stark binary contrasts: “Terrorists do not worship God, they worship death”; “this is a battle between good and evil”; and even a word to the terrorists (in all caps in the written text) —  “YOUR SOUL WILL BE CONDEMNED.” Trump’s subsequent call to Middle Eastern leaders was direct and unequivocal: “Deny all territory to the foot soldiers of evil” and “DRIVE THEM OUT OF THIS EARTH.”

“Defeating” terrorism

Trump also sent a message to leaders from countries with little commitment to democratic institutions: “We will make decisions based on real-world outcomes — not inflexible ideology,” and “we must seek partners, not perfection.” To many observers, this sent a clear message to autocratic leaders in the region, who often use the threat of terrorism to justify repression and violence against political opponents. Trump seemed to suggest that these leaders need not be constrained by American principles as long as they were committed to the fight against terrorism.

Trump also praised Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain — some of the worst human rights offenders in the region — for “working to undermine recruitment and radicalism.” This contrasts sharply with Obama’s Cairo speech, where he said “you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion,” and “suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away.”

In the latter part of the Riyadh address, Trump criticized Iran as a country that “has fueled the fires of sectarian conflict and terror.” This played well in Saudi Arabia, which is engaged in what it sees as a regional struggle against Iranian influence. And while Iran has indeed supported the Syrian regime and fueled sectarianism in Lebanon with its support for Hezbollah, it is also true that the countries Trump praised are similarly implicated in proxy conflicts throughout the region.

The optics of Trump’s speech, lauding a family-run authoritarian monarchy the day after Iranians voted overwhelmingly to re-elect their comparably moderate president, did not sit particularly well with those in the Middle East seeking democratic paths to political reform. A U.S.-Saudi arms deal signed during Trump’s visit, while a Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen has led to civilian casualties and mass hunger, has similarly bred discontent.

Underlying all of this is a problem U.S. presidents have always faced: the credibility of the messenger. Among Muslims around the globe, America is seen as deeply tone deaf and compromised by its long-standing policies whenever it tries to tell Muslims what to believe or do. Trump’s anti-Muslim campaign rhetoric and overwhelming focus on religious extremism intensify this challenge, even for those in his audience inclined to agree with his prescriptions to eliminate terrorism.

Imagine the public response to a Saudi king coming to the United States and delivering an address on how to eliminate racist violence by U.S. police forces, and you start to get the picture.

The further challenge for Trump is this: as abhorrent as the use of political violence may be, it is ultimately driven by political despair. The fight against terrorism requires a foreign policy that aims to alleviate the sources of that despair.

While Obama’s Cairo speech set unrealistic expectations about U.S. relations in the Middle East, Trump’s Riyadh speech risks setting unrealistic expectations about the means and possibility of eliminating terrorism. To be successful, a doctrine of “principled realism” will require a set of principles guided by American values as well as a realistic approach to addressing the true origins of political violence.

Quinn Mecham is an assistant professor of political science at Brigham Young University and is the author of “Institutional Origins of Islamist Political Mobilization,” (Cambridge University Press, 2017).