Trump Changed His Tone on Islam—Will He Change Strategy?

The president’s speech in Riyadh represented a welcome shift from his former rhetoric. The question is what actions will follow.

President Donald Trump delivers a speech to the Arab Islamic American Summit, at the King Abdulaziz Conference Center on May 21, 2017, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
President Donald Trump delivers a speech to the Arab Islamic American Summit, at the King Abdulaziz Conference Center on May 21, 2017, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Evan Vucci / AP)

To say that candidate Donald Trump adopted a sharply critical and un-nuanced tone on Islam would be the grossest of understatements. Campaigner-in-Chief Trump proclaimed the need to adopt specific language (“radical Islamic terrorism”), proposed banning all Muslims from entering the United States, and bemoaned that “Islam hates us.” The president’s remarkable reversal in tone (and potentially substance) in Riyadh—combined with the region’s clear optimism for a post-Obama American approach to the region—offers opportunities for progress even if they’re unlikely to produce significant improvement in the root causes of the region’s broader economic, demographic, and political challenges.

With the possible exception of building a wall along the southern border, nothing epitomized Trump’s campaign rhetoric more than his virulent anti-Islamic language. Lost were all nuances, appreciation for the need for domestic and international partnerships with Muslim communities, and true vision for defeating either terrorist organizations or their motivating ideologies. This combined to produce more than a bit of apprehension over the president’s first foreign trip to—of all places—the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. But if we have learned nothing else from the first months of the Trump presidency, past performance does not guarantee future results.

The president’s speech in Riyadh, while understandably not addressing every aspect of the region’s many challenges, represented a stark and welcome shift from his past approach. Most importantly, the president avoided the counterproductive “us versus them” framing of his campaign. He admirably noted that countering terrorism is not a battle between different faiths or different civilizations, and that Islam is “one of the world’s great faiths.” Moreover, he recognized that those who have suffered most at the hands of al-Qaeda and ISIS have not been in the U.S. or Europe, but rather in the Arab world. In short, he spoke of partnerships based on “shared interest and common security” as opposed to demonizing a global religion and alienating vital allies at home and abroad.

These seeds of presidential progress found fertile soil in Riyadh, as the region’s increasing alienation from the United States during the Obama administration left many across the Middle East thirsty for a more pragmatic American approach—or, as President Trump termed it, “principled realism.”  Whether rightly or wrongly, leaders from Cairo to Doha often saw President Obama as sanctimonious and weak on key concrete issues, to include the Iranian nuclear deal and the failure to enforce the administration’s own red line in Syria. In Trump’s Riyadh address they found instead a focus on the violent extremists that threaten their own authority, a business-oriented transactional president, a common vision of Iranian threats, and—if not a wholesale abandonment of such issues—a clearly diminished focus on human rights, democratization, and related themes.

Initial administration steps toward turning this rhetorical shift into concrete actions are good ones, even if they rest more on pre-Trump efforts than the president would likely admit. Expanding and rapidly closing previously planned arms sales illustrates America’s lasting commitment to Saudi security. Formalizing counterterrorism finance programs in a more regional, multilateral center based in the Kingdom is a wise culmination of many years of work by America’s Treasury Department and intelligence community. Steps to counter Iran’s malignant regional influence are more nascent, but this is to be expected, given the more complex and perilous landscape involving the nuclear deal and what are effectively Sunni-Shia proxy wars in Yemen and Syria.

Yet these tactical steps won’t produce long-term results—and they could prove counterproductive—absent a larger strategy. Such a strategy would involve defense-related reforms that would expand upon the significant defense sales the president announced on Sunday. For example, streamlining the U.S. Foreign Military Sales program would enable key partners beyond Saudi Arabia and strengthen U.S. alliances that have been challenged by global geopolitical and business competition. As (if not more) important, a balanced strategy requires similarly-weighty aid programs for non-military capabilities that are equally central to combatting terrorism, in particular intelligence, police, educational, and economic reforms to address more foundational drivers toward violent extremism. This will be a harder sell in the region and in Washington, as it requires convincing our allies of its importance and simultaneously protecting budgets that are currently at risk.

Finally, any balanced strategy will require continued close partnerships with our regional allies to expand and improve the effectiveness of counter messaging programs, especially online. The inclusion of the Saudi Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology on the president’s itinerary was a good sign, but since September 11, 2001 we have seen far too many such initiatives fall short.  Strategic progress will require real U.S. and partner investment and programs that have often been derided by opponents as coddling terrorists or “jobs for jihadis.”  Although counter-messaging and counter-radicalization programs are not a cure all, they are a vital part of any strategy especially as America invests in its more military-focused initiatives.

Absent these kinds of measures, America will find itself with some tactical victories but few strategic gains. Arguably, the Obama administration took the reverse approach: a strategic vision for change that sacrificed current losses in favor of hoped-for but all-too-often ephemeral long term gains. Most leadership in the region will heartily welcome the Trumpian approach, as it frees their domestic hands while ensuring U.S. support for anti-ISIS and anti-Iranian foreign goals. And without being too blunt, they see it as not just permitting, but rather endorsing many of their authoritarian tendencies.

American interests lie somewhere between these two poles. The president has taken important and productive steps toward strengthening regional support for counterterrorism (both Sunni and Shia-inspired). But these steps carry the risk of losing sight of the foundational drivers of dissatisfaction that have—for decades—produced threats to American interests. On this front, President Trump will face a more skeptical audience in the region. But just as only Nixon could go to China, perhaps the president is one who can, with time, develop a more balanced approach that could begin to stem the tide of violent extremism.