It was interesting to watch President Trump’s speech to the assembled notables of the Arab and Islamic world today. Besides the obvious climb down from his anti-Muslim rhetoric during the campaign, the most striking aspect of the speech was the clear realignment of US policy in the region in favor of our long standing Sunni allies. The Obama administration had moved the US away from its traditional allies, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt in his overtures to Iran which culminated in the deal over Iran’s nuclear program. The question still remains as to why he did this. Did he believe that an overture to Iran was his Nixon moment and that his legacy would be that of a peacemaker towards one of America’s most hostile enemies? If that is the case then he was merely deluded. Or did he do it because he is a crypto Muslim and a crypto Shi’a Muslim to boot? This seems more likely to me. It is also consistent with his coolness towards Saudi Arabia, his restraint in acting against Bashar Al Assad, his withdrawal from Iraq and unwillingness to confront Nuri Al Maliki over the question of the status of forces agreement when Al Maliki was clearly doing the bidding of the Iranian regime and his surge of troops to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan, clear enemies of Shi’a Iran.
The love fest that was displayed in Riyadh coupled with the strong anti-Iranian statements contained in the speech appear to indicate that the current administration will give full support to the Saudis in their current proxy wars with Iran. The Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubair gave an eloquent defense of Saudi actions in Yemen when questioned by a US reporter. Trump has already acted against Assad in Syria and not just with his headline grabbing missile strike. Recently US forces struck regime elements that were preparing a combat position near US forces already in the country. This did not make the evening news but is a clear indication that there is more than one red line in play.
The speech was written by Stephen Miller who is also the architect of the Muslim travel ban. That is the first irony in respect of the speech. The speech as a whole was fairly anodyne and bland. In toning down the anti-Muslim rhetoric it attempted to shift the dialogue in a sop to the Muslim world that we don’t really believe that Islam is inherently violent or inimical to western or Christian values but that the perpetrators of terrorism carried out in the name of Islam are effectively criminal thugs who have hijacked the religion as a means to their nefarious, nay evil ends. This is no longer a clash of civilizations but a Manichean fight between good and evil. Now there’s a further wonderful irony in that position as the roots of this philosophy of Manichean dualism are in Iran. The additional irony of the position on Islamic terrorism taken in the speech that stood out was what was not in the speech. That of course, is the fact that the ideological position taken by organizations such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State are derived from the Wahabbi interpretation of Islam that brought the Al Saud to power and have sustained that state over the last two and a half centuries.
That does not detract from the fact that the Al Saud would all be put to death if the Islamic State players were ever to take over the Kingdom but the move by the Saudis to establish an anti-terrorism center in Riyadh is rooted both in self-preservation as well as in their continuing effort to lead the Islamic world and surpass the Azhar as the arbiter of all things Islamic. Once the Islamic State is defeated expect some backsliding by the Saudis on the whole issue. The US should be prepared for that and not go into this partnership with too high hopes for any truly fundamental change in the Saudi position within Islam.