Trump’s Saudi Arabia Speech a Good Start, But Action Must Follow
Donald Trump made Saudi Arabia the first stop on his first presidential trip abroad for a reason. His speech Sunday in Riyadh was a principal factor in that decision, inviting as it does close comparison to Barack Obama’s June 2009, Cairo speech. Trump’s rhetoric wins hands down.
Unlike Obama, who somehow couldn’t find a way to use words like “terror” or “terrorism” in his speech, Trump made the common terrorist threat facing America and the Muslim world his central point. Recognizing the radical, ideological nature of the threat is manifestly a prerequisite to dealing with it effectively, which Trump emphasized repeatedly during the 2016 campaign. This logic resonates in the Muslim world just as it does in America.
Obama was fundamentally wrong to believe that Muslims heard “war on terror” to mean “war on Muslims.” King Abdullah of Jordan, for example, the Muslim king of a Muslim country, has repeatedly characterized Islamicist terrorism as a civil war within Islam. The victims of this terrorism have already included more Muslims than those of any other faith. The Muslim world understands this is not a “battle between different faiths,” as Trump said, even if Obama did not.
Whether Trump’s concrete proposals against terrorism, specifically regarding joint action with Saudi Arabia and others against terrorist financing, will bear fruit remains to be seen. But surely identifying the root of the threat as the radical Islamist ideology is the right start.
Equally important are the speech’s implications for Iran, which Saudi King Salman called “the spearhead of global terrorism.”
Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution brought the ayatollahs to power, Iran has been the world’s central banker for terrorists, financing, arming and training them. Now verging on becoming a nuclear power, Tehran’s threats to Israel and the entire region are becoming existential. In fact, an Iranian nuclear capability is simply the ultimate terrorist weapon.
The Saudis and other Arab oil-producing monarchies see Iran as their principal threat. Understandably, therefore, these regimes saw Obama’s obsession with achieving a nuclear deal with Iran and establishing full Washington-Tehran bilateral relations as enlarging the Iranian threat, not reducing it.
As a corollary, the Arabs also believed Washington had taken leave of its senses, since Obama’s strategy was palpably contrary to elemental US national interests.
Much of the damage Obama did still needs repairing, and underlines why Trump’s policy proposals are potentially so important. Once ISIS is eliminated from the territory it now holds in the region, the next strategic issue is countering Iran’s coalition, including its surrogates controlling Iraq’s government; the Assad regime in Syria; and Hezbollah in Lebanon (now extending into parts of Syria).
Preparing for possible conflict with Iran is very much on the minds of the Arab leaders Trump just met. The arms sales to Saudi Arabia announced during the visit only get them so far. Arms sales alone don’t constitute a strategy against Iran because its preferred tactics rest on terrorism and nuclear intimidation. Conventional forces won’t deter asymmetrical threats, and with Iran’s nuclear capability ever nearer, even more forceful US (or Israeli) action may be required.
In Sunni Arab terms today, the combined threats from Iran and radical Islamic terrorism align their national interests with Israel in ways previously unimaginable (as symbolized by Trump’s very itinerary, travelling from Saudi Arabia to Israel). This convergence has already encouraged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others to believe that the “outside” influence of the Arab states may finally persuade the Palestinian Authority to get serious about peace negotiations with Israel.
Of course, Iran sees the same constellation forming, and will doubtless increase its financial, political and military support for Hamas to ensure that it fails. Iranian assistance to terrorists has always had a remarkable equal-opportunity component, aiding Sunni and Shiite terrorists alike, whatever advances Iran’s geopolitical influence. In this and other national-security issues, Iran’s presidential “election” Friday makes little real difference. Supreme authority still rests with the supreme leader, not the elected president.
Rhetorically, Trump’s speech brought welcome relief to his Arab audience after eight years of Obama’s blindness to Iranian and terrorist threats. But actions must follow. What he needs to accomplish most urgently is the expedited destruction of the ISIS “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria, followed by concrete steps to eliminate Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, and ultimately the ayatollah’s regime. If such actions follow his words, then his speech will have been a success.
John Bolton is former US ambassador to the United Nations.
This article originally appeared in the New York Post.