President Donald Trump sent two concordant messages to the Middle East this week. First, for only the second time in the history of the Syrian civil war, Trump ordered American warplanes to intentionally attack Iranian proxies working to foment continued unrest. Second, Trump gave a well-received speech in Saudi Arabia, using support for Muslim governments to be more active in the fight against terrorism and extremism.
The dichotomy offered a powerful message to extremists, as well as allies: The United States is not afraid to show force in the region, but also hopes that it can exist to support—not lead—efforts to eradicate terrorism. The president’s speech was particularly impactful, in no small part because of the rhetorical contrast it offers from the previous administration. John Bolton writes for the New York Post:
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.
Contrary to his critic’s fears, President Trump struck exactly the right tone. He was conciliatory where it made sense, saying the the Middle East “is rich with beauty, vibrant cultures and massive amounts of historic treasures” and on track to become “one of the great global centers of commerce and opportunity.”
But Trump didn’t shy away from harsh truths or Obama-era euphemisms. Instead, where necessary, he was willing to call a spade a spade.
“There is still much work to do,” Trump told the crowd. “That means honestly confronting the crisis of Islamic extremism and the Islamists and Islamic terror of all kinds.”
Those are important phrases that have been strategically avoided by previous administrations. But President Trump, as Bolton notes above, recognizes the intelligence of his audience. Extremists misappropriate Islam to justify their violent ends. That doesn’t mean that Islam is a religion rooted in or supportive of terror.
Indeed, President Trump’s primary point was that the United States’ makes common cause with the Muslim world, who bears the brunt of terrorism.
“This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations,” Trump argued. “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.”
In this battle, Trump promised, America “is prepared to stand with [the Middle East].” But, he argued, “the nations of the Middle East cannot wait for American power to crush their enemy for them.”
It’s a sobering assessment, one that past presidents have been hesitant to make. The United States will be strong and prosperous no matter what. And in so doing, it promises to do what it can to promote “the aspirations and dreams of all citizens who seek a better life.” But it can’t do everything. The Middle East must step up to confront it’s own demons, lest it be doomed to stay stuck in the cycle of violence that has plagued it for decades.