When the country-music star Toby Keith performs in Riyadh on Saturday, will he sing of red Solo cups and drunk Americans before his conservative Muslim hosts? As he takes the stage alongside an Arabian lute player to honor Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, will Keith explain, as he does, that “[putting] a boot in your ass” is “the American way”?
The concert is a fitting image at the start of a fraught trip. On his way to the NATO and G-7 summits, the U.S. president will visit Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Rome—three high-stakes stops to symbolize three major world religions. While the particulars of this trip, much like a male-only Toby Keith concert, may be awkward, Trump’s itinerary is consistent with some of his emerging rhetoric on international affairs. This president has put counterterrorism at the center of his foreign policy—and religious identity, specifically around Islam, is at the core of that effort.
National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster alluded to the symbolism in a recent press briefing, noting that “no president has ever visited the homelands and holy sites of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslims faiths all on one trip.” And Trump himself originally announced the trip during a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden, where he signed an executive order on religious freedom. In Saudi Arabia, “the custodian of the two holiest sites in Islam,” he said, the administration “will begin to construct a new foundation of cooperation and support with our Muslim allies to combat extremism, terrorism, and violence, and to embrace a more just and hopeful future for young Muslims in their countries.” McMaster later expanded on this: Trump’s goal is to send a “message that the United States and the entire civilized world expects our Muslim allies to take a strong stand against radical Islamist ideology,” which “uses a perverted interpretation of religion to justify crime against all humanity,” he said. Trump will also call on Muslim leaders to “promote a peaceful vision of Islam,” McMaster added.
The civilizational language is striking. McMaster implied that “the entire civilized world” did not include the “Muslim allies” who were, he suggested, responsible for containing the radicals in their midst. This diplomatic trip is quite literally being framed as a battle between good and evil, a bid to end the “crime[s] against all humanity” McMaster described. The way to build an alliance against evil, the administration suggests, is to reach out to fellow peoples—not just strategic allies, but civilizations with a moral stake in defeating the “perverted” enemy.
This sensibility matches Trump’s past rhetoric on America’s identity and role in the world, which has sometimes centered on religion. From the National Prayer Breakfast in February to the Rose Garden ceremony in May, the president and his colleagues have consistently linked their vision of America’s prestige and greatness with its claim to be “one nation under God.” Trump speaks of freedom of religion as “a sacred right” that is “under threat all around us,” but America is “going to straighten it out.” At a recent summit on persecuted Christians, Vice President Mike Pence reaffirmed “America’s role as a beacon of hope and life and liberty,” promising that “protecting religious freedom is a foreign-policy priority of the Trump administration.”
Putting that vision into action won’t be so straightforward, especially as Trump ventures out into the world for the first time as president. Having declared global religious freedom a priority, Trump has selected his first stop as Saudi Arabia, a repeat offender against religious minorities and the freedom of women. Although Trump has bragged about his friendship with Israel, the last few weeks have been full of diplomatic faux pas, most recently Trump’s haphazard disclosure of top-secret Israeli intelligence in a conversation with visiting Russian dignitaries. Even his visit with Pope Francis at the Vatican comes with complications: The pontiff and the president have sparred in the past.
And for another thing, the gaffe potential is high. Take Trump’s planned speech on Islam in Saudi Arabia. If he wants to recruit Muslim allies to “stand against radical Islamist ideology,” he will have to take a different tone than he has previously, when he’s said things like “I think Islam hates us.” His folksy, off-the-cuff manner and unwillingness to pay attention to briefings has also left aides worried about potentially damaging missteps during the highly choreographed trip.
And yet, by the time this trip is over, the world will likely have images of Trump flashing a thumbs up with King Salman of Saudi Arabia, praying in Bethlehem and at the Western Wall, and smiling with the pope in Rome. One day, we may look back and see these as artifacts of Trump’s worldview—a president who imagines peoples locked in existential conflict, surrounded by mortal danger. According to Trump, their struggle, and America’s, can only be understood through their faith.
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