By Roger Cohen
May 23, 2017
You have to hand it to President Trump. To have gone from his call for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” to “this is a not a battle between different faiths” in less than 18 months is an achievement. In others, it might be considered a radical ideological shift on the sources of terrorism. But not in Trump, who does not really think much about anything.
Of course, Trump timed his discovery that “more than 95 percent of the victims of terrorism are themselves Muslim” to coincide with his stay in Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s holiest sites and to an immense thirst for weapons from “great American defense companies.” Still, I feel obliged to give the president credit. He has walked back the anti-Muslim rhetoric of his campaign and seems to have discovered something called the Palestinians. It has dawned on him that President Bashar al-Assad of Syria has “committed unspeakable crimes.”
This is a good thing. It is progress.
I wish I could find more to praise in the surreal exercise that was Donald in Arabia. How fitting that the president chose as his first overseas port of call an autocratic sword-brandishing monarchy that demeans women. He brandished. He addressed men. He slotted in.
As Trump lambasted terrorism, without pondering its sources, he was standing in the country that provided 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 and has been the fountainhead — through its religious establishment and consistent funding — of the fanatical, anti-Western, anti-women and puritanical strain of Sunni Islam central to the credo of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
The Saudi embrace of Wahhabi beliefs and its implacable opposition to the pluralistic push that inspired the Arab Spring help explain the recent history of the Middle East. The post-9/11 world has been less a story of Shia Iran against the West than Wahhabi Salafists; it’s not even close. All of this the president chose to forget as he jettisoned President Barack Obama’s attempt to wean American interests from the House of Saud.
Blocked Arab societies, resistant to modernity, strangled by ruling families, denying agency to their citizens, forcing women into marginalization and invisibility, are the creators of the testosterone-charged, cult-like violence of movements like the Islamic State. It is all very well for Trump to stand in Saudi Arabia (of all places) and, alluding to terrorists, tell Middle Eastern nations to “drive them out of this earth.” This exhortation ignores the fact that these states cannot be at once incubator and inquisitor.
A values-free foreign policy, which is what Trump proposes in the misguided pursuit of “America First,” is problematic for the United States. It is self-denying. If you stand with the dictators, you cannot deplore what dictatorships — especially women-confining dictatorships — often produce: violent, hate-filled, alienated males in desperate search of an all-answering ideology (and the consolation of an Islamic State-designated mate).
The Islamic State is, of course, Sunni. Iran is not. But in case anyone thought Trump was serious in uniting Muslim forces against Islamic State terror, he acceded to the wishes of his Saudi hosts (shared by Israel) and attacked Iran as the source of “destruction and chaos across the region.”
His words will fan the most bitter rivalry in the Middle East, the source of several surrogate wars, that between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The United States should not play this incendiary game. It should be attempting, rather, to build Sunni-Shia bridges. Isolating Iran, as Trump urged, is a fool’s errand. Iran is too big to isolate; such a strategy will benefit hard-liners in Tehran determined to thwart the steady reformist push of the nation’s youth.
Trump’s Iran diatribe was particularly grotesque in that it came as President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate, was re-elected with 57 percent of the vote and crowds in Tehran demanded greater freedom. Iran is a repressive society that pursues anti-American objectives in the region; it is also a large island of stability and a society with far greater representative and participatory forces than Saudi Arabia. Anyone who fails to see a glimmer of hope in Iran is blind.
Rouhani trounced a hard-line cleric, Ebrahim Raisi, favoured by the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. It was clear once again, as with the nuclear deal that Khamenei has to arbitrate between competing forces in an Iranian society that is anything but monolithic. The theocratic and civic states coexist in uneasy symbiosis. One day something must give.
As Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace put it to me in an e-mail: “Trump is a crowd pleaser, and Iran is one of the issues that unite Arabs and Israelis.” But, he added, “Coupled with the dark worldview and policies of the Iranian regime, there is light and hope in Iranian society.”
For Trump to seek favour with the Saudis by trampling on that light is a mistake. Worse, it’s a futile mistake because neither the Saudis nor the Egyptians will, as the president seems to imagine, be able to deliver an Israeli-Palestinian peace that neither party wants.