Donald Trump's Invigorating Speech in Riyadh
There was some overlap: both indulged heartily in the usual political boilerplate and délicatesse: honored to be here, working together, Islam’s great contribution to culture, how splendid is the Middle East, terrorism is not coterminous with Islam, etc., etc.
But that’s where the similarity ended. Trump’s speech was a forthright, America First, speech, Obama’s an accommodationist’s dream.
These days, we’re supposed to look at everything through the lens of gender, so let me get with the hermeneutical program and say that Obama’s speech, indeed his entire performance, struck me as an anti-patriarchal blow for what Goethe, in another context, called das ewig weibliche, the eternal feminine (though I wouldn’t say it was leading us hinan, “ever upwards,” as Goethe hoped).
Trump’s speech—and, again, his entire performance—struck me as (if I may employ an archaic word that is probably forbidden on most college campuses) manly.
Obama told his audience how deep an influence Islam had had on America from the very beginning of the republic. He lamented the activities of “violent extremists.” He apologized for the bigotry of Americans. “Fear and anger” was understandable in the wake of 9/11, he said, but those emotions “in some cases . . . led us to act contrary to our ideals.” He never mentioned the word “terrorism,” much less “Islamic terrorism.”
Trump sought solutions guided by “common sense,” “principled realism,” and “experience,” not “ideology.” He praised Islam as a great and beneficent religion, but also sternly rejected “Islamic extremism,” “Islamicism,” and “Islamic terror of all kinds.” He used the words “terror” and “terrorism” more than thirty times. He castigated ISIS, Hamas, and Hezbollah as terrorist organizations, and was particularly tart about the role of Iran in funding, abetting, and exporting terror.
Obama began his trip by bowing to a Saudi king. Trump stood tall and shook his hand, his wife Melania, without a headscarf, by his side. (Fake news alert: the disgusting Washington Post, where truth goes to die, ran a breathless story about how Trump bowed when he received the medal signifying Saudi Arabia’s highest civilian honor. How exactly could the honor have been bestowed had Trump not bowed his head to receive it?)
Obama ended his speech with the benediction: “May God's peace be upon you.” Trump, having wished the same for the countries whose leaders he was addressing, ended with “God bless the United States of America.”
Bottom line: Obama went to Cairo to apologize for America and hope for world peace. Trump went to Riyadh to champion America and extend an offer to work together for world peace.
I know that pundits will be descending like buzzards upon a carcass to pick away at the details of Trump’s speech. Happy eating to them.
I’d like to step back and speculate on its significance in the broader context of American foreign policy. Trump, of course, was supposed to be an anti-Muslim fanatic who wanted to deport or incarcerate all Muslims who lived in America. That’s pretty much what that Obama-appointed Democratic tool Judge Robart said when he issued his temporary restraining order against Trump’s executive order restricting immigration from several known terrorist hot spots.
But here he was on his first foreign trip as president making his first stop in Saudi Arabia, before going on to Israel, and thence to Rome, Brussels, and elsewhere in Europe. Note the symbolism of the itinerary: central sites of the four great religions of our time: Islam, Judaism, Catholic Christianity, and (with Brussels) Bureaucratic Atheism.
My friend Judy Miller writes that Trump’s “big trip” was undertaken to “change the subject” and divert attention from the “crisis” at home. But Judy, like many of her colleagues in the MSM, keeps consulting a notebook labelled “Watergate.” Her narrative is out of date. The only “crisis” is the pseudo-crisis that is 100% American-made fiction. Robert Mueller, the special counsel appointed to investigate alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians in the the 2016 presidential election, will, I predict, shortly reveal just how fictitious that narrative has been. Whether he also reveals malfeasance on the part of the Clinton campaign is an interesting question and one which, were I Hillary Clinton, would have me worried.
But I digress. Judy Miller is right that Trump’s sojourn is a big deal, but not because it distracts the public from the anti-Trump hysteria of people like Judy but rather because it represents a thoughtful and and well-orchestrated effort to bring about constructive change in one of the world’s most troubled areas. Will it work? No one knows that answer to that. I suspect it will work in part. A large question mark hovers over the pliability of the Palestinians, who have consistently rebuffed Israel’s efforts to forge a path towards peaceful co-existence. Will they grow up and forsake terrorism? Let’s see.
Here’s another way in which Trump’s speech in Riyadh was manly. It was steely-eyed (“Our friends will never question our support, and our enemies will never doubt our determination”) but forward-looking and upbeat.
Was it also realistic? Again, we’ll see. Trump, like Obama before, had lots of emollient things to say about Islam. Trump also said that “this is not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations. This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life, and decent people all in the name of religion.”
I hope that is true. Is it? The true answer, I suspect, is both yes and no. Yes, it is is often true “on the ground,” in actual practice—except when it isn’t. I think my friend Andrew McCarthy is right when he observes in The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America that ultimately the gravest danger posed by Islam to the West is not terrorism but the “stealth jihad” which endeavors to spread sharia, i.e., Islamic law, by infiltrating and corrupting democratic institutions. It’s a sterling trick of using and abusing democratic freedoms in order, ultimately, to abolish them. Day one: “You must allow the hijab in the name of religious freedom!” Day two: “You must forbid pork products because they contravene Islamic law!” You know the drill.
How exactly this will all play out I do not know. But I thought that Trump’s speech, indeed his entire visit to Saudi Arabia, was a tremendous success. I am not discounting the many things to criticize about that strange theocratic, oil-sodden backwater. It would be nice to drag them into the modern world and encourage them to change their behavior towards Christians, towards Jews, towards women, and towards other groups they oppress. Fewer beheadings, more beneficence should be the operative mantra. Trump’s intervention, appealing to shared interests, might just represent the first few steps on that road.