Trump Changed His Tone on Islam—Will He Change Strategy?

Source: The Atlantic


To say that candidate Donald Trump adopted a sharply critical and un-nuanced tone on Islam would be the grossest of understatements. Campaigner-in-Chief Trump proclaimed the need to adopt specific language (“radical Islamic terrorism”), proposed banning all Muslims from entering the United States, and bemoaned that “Islam hates us.” The president’s remarkable reversal in tone (and potentially substance) in Riyadh—combined with the region’s clear optimism for a post-Obama American approach to the region—offers opportunities for progress even if they’re unlikely to produce significant improvement in the root causes of the region’s broader economic, demographic, and political challenges.

With the possible exception of building a wall along the southern border, nothing epitomized Trump’s campaign rhetoric more than his virulent anti-Islamic language. Lost were all nuances, appreciation for the need for domestic and international partnerships with Muslim communities, and true vision for defeating either terrorist organizations or their motivating ideologies. This combined to produce more than a bit of apprehension over the president’s first foreign trip to—of all places—the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. But if we have learned nothing else from the first months of the Trump presidency, past performance does not guarantee future results.

The president’s speech in Riyadh, while understandably not addressing every aspect of the region’s many challenges, represented a stark and welcome shift from his past approach. Most importantly, the president avoided the counterproductive “us versus them” framing of his campaign. He admirably noted that countering terrorism is not a battle between different faiths or different civilizations, and that Islam is “one of the world’s great faiths.” Moreover, he recognized that those who have suffered most at the hands of al-Qaeda and ISIS have not been in the U.S. or Europe, but rather in the Arab world. In short, he spoke of partnerships based on “shared interest and common security” as opposed to demonizing a global religion and alienating vital allies at home and abroad.

These seeds of presidential progress found fertile soil in Riyadh, as the region’s increasing alienation from the United States during the Obama administration left many across the Middle East thirsty for a more pragmatic American approach—or, as President Trump termed it, “principled realism.”  Whether rightly or wrongly, leaders from Cairo to Doha often saw President Obama as sanctimonious and weak on key concrete issues, to include the Iranian nuclear deal and the failure to enforce the administration’s own red line in Syria. In Trump’s Riyadh address they found instead a focus on the violent extremists that threaten their own authority, a business-oriented transactional president, a common vision of Iranian threats, and—if not a wholesale abandonment of such issues—a clearly diminished focus on human rights, democratization, and related themes.

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