Trump's Message to the Middle East Couldn't Be More Different from Obama's

President Barack Obama speaks at Cairo University. Flickr/Obama White House

Trump’s promise that America would mind its own business stood in marked contrast to Obama’s outstretched hand.

President Trump marked another turning of the page from the Barack Obama years with his highly anticipated speech delivered in Saudi Arabia on his first trip overseas. While there were some similarities with Barack Obama’s major address on June 4, 2009 in Cairo, Egypt—such as a willingness to work with those who responded in kind to America’s “outstretched hands”—most striking were the differences. Generally speaking, and put in more colloquial terms, the differences between the two approaches and speeches can best be explained by the following summation.

In 2009, Obama essentially told the Muslim world that he understood them and that their blemishes were similar to America’s; that he was aware of and sorry about America’s contribution to their extremism; and that the United States would be more tolerant in the future—that with respect for each other, a new partnership could be built.

In 2017, President Trump essentially told the gathered leaders that he is aware of the problem in Islam, but he’s not going to get into a debate over why and how it happened. The fact is that it is their problem to deal with and he’ll hold their political leaders responsible for handling their business. There exists a common set of interests upon which a new partnership can be built.

Audience and Agenda

In true realist form, Trump’s speech was designed to speak directly to the leaders of these countries. He’s now seen their faces and has their names and, perhaps more importantly, their telephone numbers, which he can now call to work on an assortment of challenges.

Contrast that with Obama, who spoke over Muslim leaders’ heads and directly to “the people of Egypt” and Muslims at large. He sought to create a “partnership between America and Islam” that was always a problem. An American president is the leader of a country with a constitution that promotes freedom of religion and favors none above the other. America and its representatives can make deals and reach understanding with governments and partner with their people—even with the adherents of a religion in a particular country. But an American president cannot partner with a religion. Trump indicated early on, “I stand before you as a representative of the American people”—he was not there as the representative of Christendom. He went on to meet the pope a few days later, as a guest of the Vatican.

Whereas George W. Bush pursued a “Freedom Agenda” in the aftermath of 9/11, which meant promoting democracy abroad as a means to address the underlying causes of Islamism, Trump never mentioned the word “freedom” or “democracy” at all. Nor was it a prominent feature in Obama’s speech: “No system of government can or should be imposed by one nation by any other.” One may therefore surmise that America’s costly foreign adventures are a thing of the past. For Obama, that decision was initially designed to leave a far lighter American footprint in the Middle East and pivot to Asia; for Trump it meant that “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.”

Build No Democracies, Discuss No Theologies, Make No Apologies

In a noticeable—if not expected—change, Trump made no apologies for past American behavior, and avoided manufacturing moral equivalencies and assigning false parallels. He did not seek to cast the rise of Islamism as a response to the West, or explain how “tension has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims” as Obama opined in his opening.

Nor did Trump assume the role of an Islamic scholar or lecture his audience on his view of Islamic jurisprudence (i.e., the partnership with the United States “must be based on what Islam is, not what it isn’t”). Neither did he quote the Koran as Obama did.

There was also a major difference in how both handled the issue of radical or political Islamism. Trump repeatedly made the point that it is at the core of the problem and is the responsibility of the political leaders to address: “Muslim-majority countries must take the lead in combating radicalization” and “Muslim nations must be willing to take on the burden, if we are going to defeat terrorism and send its wicked ideology into oblivion.”

If George W. Bush leaned too far toward democracy promotion, then Trump’s more neutral stance may not have given Middle East moderates or liberals much to build upon. Barack Obama, by way of contrast, weighed in on the issue and sided with political Islam, stressing the importance of respecting the freedom to practice Islam and listing only two criteria for America’s partnership: “Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them.” And several times during his Cairo speech, Obama defended the right of Muslim women to wear the hijab, but never said they should have the right not to wear one. He appeared to be sending a message to France from Egypt, rather than to Afghanistan.

President Trump was wise not to wade into these waters. He said instead, “The nations of the Middle East will have to decide what kind of future they want for themselves.” Both were careful to give the standard American disclaimer—“This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations”—but Trump also dropped the following hammer: “This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life, and decent people of all religions who seek to protect it. This is a battle between good and evil.”

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