Despised by so many among the American political and cultural elite, President Trump paradoxically still has a tremendous opportunity during his first overseas trip to begin to forge a common civilizational front at a key point in Middle East history.
Given that most media coverage of President Trump is negative, it is no surprise that most of the reporting before the beginning of his first trip, to Saudi Arabia, Israel and Europe, has been hostile as well. Presented by the administration as an effort to “bring together all the different countries and all the different religions in the fight against intolerance and to defeat radicalism,” it includes, for the first time, three different stops of importance to the three Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, in Riyadh, Jerusalem and the Vatican. It has also been a golden opportunity for the media to contrast the trip with 2016 campaign rhetoric and past tweets by then candidate Trump on Islam and Pope Francis.
Such trips, by any president, are heavy on symbolism and positive rhetoric, and this one is no different. In fact, some of the heavy lifting for the trip has already occurred in U.S. actions over the past few months. Presidential trips always have “deliverables,” deeds that are—whether of real substance or actually just connected—spun as concrete results of the visit. Despite news of agreements signed, the administration’s real deliverables have already been delivered and are easily perceived.
The administration has made it increasingly clear that, in addition to the goal of annihilating the Islamic State as an organized state, it will also seek to contain Iranian regional ambitions in the Middle East. This has been graphically underscored with two unprecedented air strikes against the Assad regime in Syria. The first one, in April 2017, seemingly took Syrian use of chemical weapons off the table. The second one, on May 18, 2017, targeted Syrian (and possibly Hezbollah) ground forces that threatened Syrian rebels tied to the United States and Jordan. These Syrian rebels are trying to race to the Euphrates as ISIS weakens, in a possible precursor to setting up some sort of safe, liberated zone in eastern Syria, controlled by pro-Western rebels.
A key part of this anti-ISIS, anti-Iran equation that the administration has attempted to highlight, albeit in inchoate ways to date, is that this fight has an ideological dimension that the previous administration ignored or minimized. This concern, reportedly controversial even within the White House, and which has been often crudely depicted in the media as mere “Islamophobia,” actually is an avowal that men are motivated by more than economics and comfort, and that ideas and identity still have power, and need to be understood.
The second “deliverable” concerns Israel. Despite some questions on focusing on the Arab-Israeli peace process, the new administration has already sought to differentiate itself from the Obama administration in openly and aggressively standing with Israel and the Netanyahu administration, whether at the United Nations or on other issues, such as the Iranian threat. The general expectation is that, whatever the spin, this administration will be much more outspokenly pro-Israel than the previous one.
Regarding the Vatican, much was made of differences between President Trump and Pope Francis on issues such as immigration, but here too the new administration has staked out broadly pro-Christian positions on a variety of fronts of great interest to the Catholic Church, including to Pope Francis, on religious freedom, abortion and the plight of Christian minorities in the Middle East. Some of these positions have been much less strong and more tentative than some traditional Christians would have preferred, but they have been strong enough to raise the ire of the Left with wild-eyed ravings about a real-world Handmaid’s Tale around the corner.
Presidential trips often have disparate stops, chosen for very different reasons, and the media is salivating at the possibility of a Trumpian faux pas, or worse, during this “risky religious pilgrimage.” But the fact that these destinations were chosen together, and that the civilizational and religious dimensions of the trip were emphasized, is a bold attempt at creating a new paradigm and focus in a region that sorely needs it. At the very least, it seeks to place a different stamp on U.S. regional policy than the supercilious one pushed by one former senior Obama official, of an America unconcerned with “fundamentally broken societies.”
President Trump may seem to many an unlikely tribune for the defense of broad civilizational values, but certainly in the Middle East, the fact that he is not Obama gives him an opportunity and a credibility with Sunni, Arab states and with Israel, which is real political currency. This is not about the content of a single controversial speech, but something much more sweeping and substantive. The pressing challenge for the administration is to have the policies and personnel in place to take advantage of this.
Some in the Western media treated a photograph of presidential advisor Steve Bannon with a Saudi cleric on the first day of the trip as an opportunity for a crude cheap shot at Bannon (and, by extension, the entire administration). But the picture is more revealing about the opportunity Trump has to actually break down some barriers.
The image is of Bannon, Jared Kushner and a descendant of Muhammad ibn Abdul-Wahhab. Minister of Islamic Affairs Saleh Al al-Sheikh is sitting together with, and seemingly hemmed in by, a practicing Jew and a Catholic. Ibn Abdul-Wahhab (d. 1792) was the ideological founder of the Saudi state and a figure still deeply influential in jihadist circles. One of his evergreen contributions is the widely available “Nullifiers of Islam,” which stipulates ten conditions that turn a Muslim into a kafir.
This is a staple of Salafi propaganda, which unsurprisingly made a cameo appearance in the March 2017 edition of ISIS’s online Rumiyah magazine. One “nullifier” is that Muslims who accept Christians or Jews as friends or allies are themselves infidels, a charge that ISIS routinely makes. If that is indeed true, then those members of the Saudi ruling class that welcomed the new administration’s leadership with such creative pomp and enthusiasm are themselves kuffar.
One Arab commentator, generally sympathetic to the new president, recently described him to me as a “bulldozer without a driver,” but in building a positive and close new relationship with the Saudis, Trump and his team have a real opportunity to decisively rebalance the scales to finally bury the legacy of toxic Wahhabism, a process begun by the late Saudi King Abdullah and continued by King Salman and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. As Will McCants has noted, this is a bold step that some in the administration may want to dismiss, but it is definitely something within Trump’s power to accomplish.
Even an incremental but definitive change by the Saudi leadership on a decades-long toxic discourse, in conjunction with a renewed American embrace of Saudi security concerns, would not only be a boon for interlocutors in Jerusalem and the Vatican, but would be a service for mankind, for so many Muslims ground down by the well-funded wheels of Saudi state-funded Salafi proselytizing.
Of course, radical ideology alone is not the sole reason for the growth of Salafism, and Salafi-jihadism, but it does provide focus and context for a broad range of other contributing factors leading to bigotry and, ultimately, to terrorism. Much Salafi activism today (not to mention terrorism) is self-sustaining, but the Saudis still have a powerful role. Faith and deep convictions, both good and bad, still move mountains.
This is the scarlet thread that ties Arabia, Jerusalem and Rome, the power of faith to inspire and move, to re-enchant the world or to plunge it into deeper darkness, still exists there and can still be harnessed for the common good of a shared civilization epitomized by Abraham, our father in faith. This is not something that a Trump administration can create—but it is something that it can nurture in new ways if its officials have the will and seize the moment.
The Arab Middle East is in terrible shape, and has a distinct chance of getting even worse. It is starved for decent leadership and good governance. Economic and societal pressures continue to build. Fundamental questions of identity and authority are very much in question. And, of course, all of these issues are not limited to the Middle East.
The new administration inherited a Middle East on fire—a fire that can be either tamped down or further inflamed. It is easy to walk away, as Obama attempted and as Trump intimated during the election campaign. But at the eleventh hour for religious minorities in the region and for existing regimes, there is an enduring opportunity for American leadership that can make a difference between difficult transitions and a cascading series of disasters that will damage or engulf every single stop on this trip.
Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice-President of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI). He was a Foreign Service Officer from 1983 to 2015, including tours as Chief of Mission in Khartoum and Malabo.