During the presidential campaign, candidate Donald Trump promised to eliminate the jihadist threat to the United States. Although he diagnoses the problem very differently from his predecessors, President-elect Trump will be just as disappointed in the results of his prescribed treatment if he follows through with it.
President-elect Trump believes the religion of Islam is the root of the problem. Ancient Islamic scripture encourages violence against the infidel, the argument goes, so modern jihadist violence won’t end until Muslims disavow or reinterpret scripture. In contrast, Presidents Bush and Obama believed that the lack of good governance and political freedom were the root cause of jihadism, not religion.
The different diagnoses lead to different treatments for the problem. Bush and Obama pushed for political reform in the Arab world. Trump and his closest national security advisors want unconditional support for Muslim autocrats who have vowed to reform Islam to stop the violence. At the top of the list are President Abdel Fatah el-Sissi in Egypt and King Abdullah in Jordan, who have both said religious reform is a necessary prelude to defeating jihadism.
Bush and Obama were disappointed with the results of their policies. Free elections brought Hamas to power in Gaza and the Arab Spring fueled the rise of the Islamic State and the renaissance of al-Qaeda. Trump will be equally disappointed when heavy-handed police tactics and state-appointed clerics fail to dim the appeal of jihadism in Muslim autocracies.