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.