Saudi Arabia suits President Donald Trump. They fêted him, they flattered him, they ensured not a scintilla of negative wafted in the air. King Salman and the Saudi royal family are absolute rulers, able to create the perfect environment to greet the self-absorbed president and give him exactly what his ego demands.
Some in the media think it’s a calculated strategy, but more likely, it’s that someone like Trump suits the Saudis better than any American president, possibly since FDR. They both favor political singularities.
Brilliant Saudi diplomacy. Flatter him. He'll give them whatever they want. https://t.co/tDJu4E0tFE
— Rod Dreher (@roddreher) May 21, 2017
That makes Trump’s articulation of what may be his most clear foreign policy since he read that “America First” speech from a teleprompter last August all the more surprising. In his Riyadh speech, Trump plagiarized and cherry picked from former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, while formulating his own brand of fighting evil through war and profit.
Invoking God nine times, Trump spoke of blessings, prayer, good and evil. But the real crux of his speech was power and war and sovereignty. Trump believes in order and the sovereignty of nations to pursue their own interests. If those interests conflict with America’s (or Trump’s personal version of them), then they’re “evil.” To the extent those interests align with America’s, they can be leveraged for profit and benefit to the U.S.
Trump dubbed this approach “Principled Realism.”
For our part, America is committed to adjusting our strategies to meet evolving threats and new facts. We will discard those strategies that have not worked—and will apply new approaches informed by experience and judgment. We are adopting a Principled Realism, rooted in common values and shared interests.
What are America’s common values and shared interests with a country from which 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers called home? Iran and ISIS, right now.
Starving terrorists of their territory, their funding, and the false allure of their craven ideology will be the basis for defeating them.
But no discussion of stamping out this threat would be complete without mentioning the government that gives terrorists all three—safe harbor, financial backing, and the social standing needed for recruitment. It is a regime that is responsible for so much instability in the region. I am speaking of course of Iran. From Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen, Iran funds, arms, and trains terrorists, militias, and other extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos across the region. For decades, Iran has fueled the fires of sectarian conflict and terror.
Iran has been no friend of America’s since the Shah left and the clerics took over. But we’d be hard pressed to express the differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia without putting them into a context of Shia versus Sunni, and specifically Wahabi, Islam. The House of Saud rules by accommodation and acquiescence to the Wahabi fundamentalists who fund Al Queda, control Islam’s holiest sites, and enforce strict Sharia adherence in Saudi Arabia.
Trump’s doctrine is to oppose an enemy not because of their principles, but because of their transactional opposition to American interests. Given full reign, many extremist Wahabis would attack America (and have!) with the same fervor that ISIS uses in recruiting and fomenting terror. They would also slaughter fellow Muslims for perceived heresies in their conception of the faith. But to Trump, those are not evil, if they are aligned with, or under the sovereignty of King Salman.
The other difference between Iran and Saudi Arabia is that the Saudis buy American weapons, and lots of them. Based on the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s figures, the Saudis spend 10 percent of their considerable GDP on their military. That puts them just behind Russia, and number four in the world with $63.7 billion in 2016.
Fighting evil is big business for Trump.
This landmark agreement includes the announcement of a $110 billion Saudi-funded defense purchase—and we will be sure to help our Saudi friends to get a good deal from our great American defense companies. This agreement will help the Saudi military to take a greater role in security operations.
There’s not even a hint of irony in Trump’s announcement of a “Global Center for Combatting Extremist Ideology” in Saudi Arabia, in the heart of some of the most extremist Islamic ideology on the planet. That’s because the Saudis spend money with America.
Were a time machine invented, and the Saudi king were deposed in 1979 while the Shah of Iran remained in power, and Wahabi-controlled oil were funding an ISIS-like thorn in the sides of Middle Eastern nations, I’m certain Trump would be in Tehran right now making the same speech, save for the names and places.
That being said, I’m not certain Trump’s approach is all that bad, compared to, say, Obama’s or Bush’s.
America is a sovereign nation and our first priority is always the safety and security of our citizens. 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—to pursue a better future for us all.
Again, “shared and interests and values.” Obama referred to these, as did Bush, but they weren’t talking about the same things as Trump.
Obama’s worldview is that colonialism, the rise of strongmen identified with an ethnic or religious minority oppressing a majority, is the evil we all face. His version of “shared values” is that all people have the right to self-determination, to throw off the yoke of oppression, and replace it with a different oppression. To say that Obama’s vision was teary-eyed revolutionary garbage is to give it too much credit.
Bush’s worldview is that democracy is the cure to all oppression, if it’s properly framed and seeded. “Nation building” was that process of tearing down generations of might makes right and religious wars and replacing it with western pluralistic democracy. That hasn’t worked, rather spectacularly.
Trump’s somewhat polymorphous version of “Realpolitik” borrows from Henry Kissinger, but without the anti-communist shades. Simply stated, Trump acknowledges that countries do evil things to their own citizens, and c’est la vie, that’s sovereignty. But when they fund non-state actors that interfere with other friendly nations, or America’s pecuniary interests, we fight them.
A hypothetical, though extreme, example is if Vladimir Putin used Sarin gas on a Chechen rebel base and killed a few hundred (or thousand) civilians, I doubt the Tomahawks would be flying. That’s not just because fighting the life-support-dependent failed Syrian state is less risky than the Russians (although certainly true), it’s because Russia hasn’t done anything to cross Trump’s “red line” of his personal view of America’s national interests.
Therefore, Saudi Arabia can continue its practice of public beheadings, oppression of women, homosexuals, Christians (who are suspiciously tolerated in small, confined doses associated with companies like ARAMCO or the U.S. military), and anything directly related to Israel. But Iran, which actually practices a much more westernized culture, is our enemy (at least rhetorically, because they just spent $6 billion with Boeing).
Iran is our enemy because they’ve declared it so. They’ve declared it so mostly because of our friendship with Israel. Saudi Arabia tolerates our friendship with Israel because it suits their security interests–at least the security interests of the House of Saud. America has taken sides, and really the only side possible in a five-hundred year conflict within Islam. But Trump’s words make this about terrorist violence, not ideology.
“Principled Realism” is therefore whatever reality Trump believes will yield the most profit. It makes America into the world’s weapon supplier (we’ve been so for a while, Trump simply acknowledges the naked profit motive), accepts the reality that war or arming for war is more-or-less a permanent fixture, and everything else is live and let live.
A quick look around the globe finds one world leader whose outlook is probably closest to Trump’s foreign policy. That would be Vladimir Putin, who has made all of Russia into an arms- and energy-selling corporation for his own personal profit and power. This could be why the mutual admiration between the two men is so strong.
We must seek partners, not perfection—and to make allies of all who share our goals.
Our goals, not our ideology.
Above all, America seeks peace—not war.
But to Trump, war is a reality. This is the salient difference between Trump’s doctrine and his predecessors.
Bush and Obama believed that their approaches could someday bring about an end to war, an abiding peace such as most of Europe has seen for the last 70 years. Trump believes that conflict is a human condition, not a problem to be solved, and that our role is to carefully choose our friends and our enemies, while maintaining our own safety and security.
With God’s help, this summit will mark the beginning of the end for those who practice terror and spread its vile creed. At the same time, we pray this special gathering may someday be remembered as the beginning of peace in the Middle East—and maybe, even all over the world.
Trump’s continued message of God, religion, and self-reliance and responsibility of Middle East nations to stamp out terrorism doesn’t contradict his worldview. Certainly, if everyone pursued peace, abandoned hatred, ideological hegemony (secular as well as religious), and beat their swords into plowshares, we would have world peace. But nobody seriously thinks Trump believes that.
President Reagan defeated Soviet communism, by partnering with anyone who opposed it and imposing overwhelming economic, diplomatic, and military pressure on his adversary. It also helped that the Russians were vulnerable during his terms in office. Trump leads an America that could defeat ISIS, and with it a whole plethora of radical Islamic terror organizations. He could also roll that into a defeat of Iran, and achieve a measure of stability for the Middle East.
The Trump doctrine of “Principled Reality” may have the best shot at yielding fruit that we’ve seen in 20 years. We simply have to accept being the movie villain, indifferent to the amoral cost of war and profit.