Terra Incognita: Trump in Riyadh vs Obama in Cairo

For the US the Obama and Trump speeches show that a new era has arrived, one in which every new US president must address the “Muslim world.”

Obama and Trump (photo credit: REUTERS)
Obama and Trump
(photo credit: REUTERS)
At the Arab-Islamic American Summit in Riyadh on Sunday US President Donald Trump delivered a direct and constructive speech to the leaders of almost 50 Muslim countries. Around eight years earlier his predecessor Barack Obama had done the same, speaking to students and with pretensions of speaking to the Muslim world, at Al-Azhar University in Cairo.
It is interesting to contrast these two speeches. In length they were similar. Obama, speaking with passion, self-deprecation and thoughtfulness, plodded through 5,800 words. Trump’s speech was over 2,000 words shorter. It was more direct, but with a modest tone and without the sweetness or professorial bent of Obama’s.
The avenues they chose were symbolic. Al-Azhar is the oldest institution of continuous Sunni Islamic learning, and Obama sought to speak to the students and the youth about a “new beginning.” Trump sought to speak to his peers, leaders of the Sunni Muslim world, and open a “new chapter.” Both spoke in dictatorships. One spoke after the failures of America in Iraq but with the “surge” about to take place. The other spoke with the war on Islamic State reaching its denouement. One sought to heal perceived divisions between the US and the Muslim world, one sought to galvanize and encourage the Muslim world to partner with the US against terrorism and Islamist extremism.
The tone was very different. Obama mentioned “violent extremists” but discussed the “glory” of the Koran. He spoke about his own background in Muslim countries. He praised Muslims for paving the way for the Enlightenment and sought to show that “Islam is part of America.” He gave lectures on the Koran, which he claimed “teaches whoever kills an innocent, it is as if he has killed all mankind,” and said the US was working with 46 countries to help Afghanistan. He dwelled on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, spending almost 1,000 words on the subject. He sought to tell Iran’s leaders “that my country is prepared to move forward.”
Although Obama assured listeners that “America does not presume to know what is best for everyone,” he lectured about freedom of religion, women’s rights, respect for minorities and the need for democracy. He also spoke about respect for women who lead “traditional roles,” and “offensive sexuality.” He also stressed US constitutional ideals, that “all are created equal.”
Trump would have none of this in Riyadh. There was no apologizing for US actions in the past. No compromise about values comparing US democracy to “traditional” roles. He spoke about bonds of “friendship, security, commerce” and “peace, security and prosperity.” He told listeners “we are not here to lecture,” but noted that America’s first priority is security of “our citizens.” He focused on terrorism, the need to “conquer and vanquish” and defeat “Islamic extremism.” He spoke out against the persecution of Jews and Christians but noted that Muslims were the main victims of terrorism.
Unlike Obama, Trump sought to highlight Iran’s dangerous role in the region. “From Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen, Iran funds, arms and trains terrorists, militias and other extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos across the region. For decades, Iran has fueled the fires of sectarian conflict and terror.” He said that the Middle East had a chance to embark on a new renaissance, and produce innovation and financial success. Where Obama had “Islamified” his speech and said “peace be upon you,” Trump was American to the core, saying, “God bless the United States of America.”
The contrast here is that where Obama spoke of justice and values, Trump spoke of partnership. Where Obama spoke of the past, Trump spoke of the future. Where Obama sought specifics about women’s rights and Israel-Palestinian relations, Trump focused on security, and more generally. Both focused on “mutual respect,” but Trump was seeking partnership with countries whereas Obama was seeking to speak to people.
The problem with Obama was that when those people he was speaking to revolted in Egypt, Libya, Iran, Syria or elsewhere, he didn’t know what to do. His inability to be honest about the Islamic origins of Islamic State, his worrying about offending Muslims, caused his administration to label Islamist murder “workplace violence” and to see the Jews murdered by terrorists in a kosher deli as “random people.”
In Riyadh Trump was atoning for his insults to Muslims on the campaign trail, but he didn’t completely whitewash the reality of Islamist terrorism, seeking to include the term once. He mentioned Hamas alongside Hezbollah, knowing that some regimes in the room had supported Hamas.
The real difference is that whereas Obama wanted to heal relations with Iran, Trump, ignoring the re-election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, wanted to throw the room some red meat in the form of Iran-bashing. What Trump said about Iran in his speech was largely accurate, but some of the regimes in the room have also allowed terrorist roots to grow, or let thousands of jihadists cross their borders to places like Afghanistan or Syria.
Obama’s speech was more friendly than Trump’s direct demand that countries “drive them [terrorists] out,” but there is a sense in the region that Trump is a known quantity, a recognizable type. Obama was distrusted by regional leaders, who saw him as weak and unreliable. Trump is seen as strong. Of course if Trump manages to stay in office for several years he will eventually be castigated for doing something wrong, because the US is always accused of doing things wrong in the region, no matter what it does.
For the US the Obama and Trump speeches show that a new era has arrived, one in which every new US president must address the “Muslim world.” The Cold War has given away to a constant demand for religious “partnership.” It shows that in the foreseeable future the US orientation will be related to its relations with “Islam.” Few could have predicated in the Clinton years, when the global hegemon was wading through Haiti, Somalia and Kosovo, that just a decade later the main issue would be whether America can please the Muslim world and relate to it to bring peace and security.
Follow the author @Sfrantzman.