Days before Air Force One with US President Donald Trump on the board touch down at the King Khalid airport in Riyadh, the foreign policy experts in Washington and the rest of the democratic world had a debate about the dangers of Trump’s speech on Islam. His views on the third great world religion were well known, perhaps even too well known, that the idea of him lecturing on Mohammed and the Koran would keep people of good will around the world awake at night.
Trump speech did not give the type of a shock they anticipated but it sent shivers down the spine of watching world. At least in his first speech to leaders of undemocratic states US President failed the deliver the right message.
To be fair, a part of the Arab world reacted enthusiastically to the President rhetoric. “What matters to this part of the world is that we feared a president who would seek to divide us, but got one who last night talked about unity and how standing together will ensure we do not fail,” Editorial of the Arab News, English-language newspaper said. Trump elevated Saudi Arabia as a leader in the fight with terrorism and terrorist groups. He offered praises to every government from Qatar to Iraq, and from Saudi Arabia to Egypt whose leaders arrived to the hastily organized summit. “We feared a president we were led to believe hates our values and culture, but we got one who sipped our coffee, joined us in sword dancing and told us last night that the US is not here to impose its way of life, but to offer us a helping hand if we choose to take it,” – the Editoria of Arabic newspaper stated. And this is the beginning of the problem.
In the capital of Saudi Arabia President Trump announced Principled Realism, which appears to be his new foreign policy doctrine based on the common interest of strengthened security and commerce, and simultaneous disinterest in the internal affairs of the allies.
The doctrine, as Trump explained in his speech, implies preserving stability, and excludes decision making based on “inflexible ideology”. Its core is a pure pragmatism: “We will be guided by the lessons of experience, not the confines of rigid thinking.” Its strategic approach are gradual reforms.
Describing his new doctrine US President in one paragraph twice denied that US will engage in any “intervention” or “disruption”.
“Our friends will never question our support, and our enemies will never doubt our determination. (…) We must seek partners, not perfection — and to make allies of all who share our goals. Above all, America seeks peace — not war.”
Donald Trump used word “values” in the course of his speech two times to emphasize that the United States only want to offer partnership. President, however, in his hundred and sixty five sentences speech did not specify these values. He talked in different contexts about “a life of dignity of hope”, “tolerance, respect, empowering women, and economic development”, “tolerance and respect” and even the theological concept of “condemnation of soul”. These ideas and values were spread out around the speech but never emphasized as “shared values”.
The President talking to the leaders of Arab states mentioned word “God” nine times, which is at least three times more than Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush in a single speech. But while his predecessors would rather avoid any theological statements, unless they would speak to Christian groups, Trump spoke freely in the language of a religious preacher. He did not hesitate to use phrases like: “with God’s help”, “honor to God”, “name of God”, “judged by God” or “Children of God” [capital letters preserved from official transcript].
Perhaps use of this kind of language in that particular speech was a carefully premeditated manouver by White House strategists as a successful marketing tool to sell the first trip of US President to Saudi Arabia. to his devout voters. Especially to those in the Southern states, famous by its religiosity, who may be stunned by President’s choice of the country for his first official visit. In their eyes, thanks to use of this ambiguous language, Trump looks like a Christian politician, who is communicating God and biblical values to Saudis. To the same Saudi Arabia leaders, who, as he said during Presidential campaign, are mastermind of 9/11 terrorist attack.
The use of ambiguous language by Trump in what could have been a crucial speech of his Presidency will result in harming of a long-term positive change in the region.
But such language can manipulate only a small fraction of an audience. The rest of the world must interpret the ambiguity of Trump language as his signal that values and principles are negotiable, and that US President can change his opinion on strategic issue almost overnight making friends of those whom he perceived as enemies only few hours ago.
Such language that is a mixture of indifference and cynicism neither appreciates anyone nor encourages honest debates or soul searching. It leaves the world as it was before the words were spoken.
Nobody should then be surprised that after such speech Saudi King enthusiastically joined a new coalition against ‘extremism and terrorism’. Because he defines terrorism also, if not primarily, as every activity of his subjects that contradicts Saudi law even if it is unjust and most importantly inhumane as infamous law against blasphemy used to sentence human democracy activists.
Speaking in a theological language by two sides that represent diametrically different worldviews can only divide immediately or lead to a serious conflict later. The theological concepts that President used have different meanings in Christianity and Islam. In Islam world created by God is perfect and does not need any intervention. His laws must be preserved. Thus Trump’s invocation “with God’s help” could sound in King’s ears only as “God willing” that is “in sha Allah”. Christian view of God and the world encourages continues men’s intervention in the created order to provide conditions for multiplication of good and justice and limitation of evil. But not for its total elimination, which is utopia.
So without Donald Trump encouragement Saudi Arabia has been fighting with its terrorists breaking religious that is Kingdom’s laws whom majority of Western opinion perceives as democracy activists and freedom fighters. Among unjustly sentenced in Saudi Arabia is blogger Raif Badawi who was flogged in public 50 times in January of 2017. The shocking report was published on his website:
“Just after Friday prayers on 9 January, Raif Badawi was led by Saudi officials out of a bus and into the middle of the square in front of al-Jafali mosque in Jeddah. A large crowd had gathered to see the flogging.
Raif stood in the middle of the crowd, handcuffed and shackled by his ankles, his face uncovered. A security officer approached Raif and began caning him across the back and legs, until he had been beaten 50 times. A witness told us it took just five minutes to cane Raif 50 times; the lashes were constant and quick.”
Badawi has 950 lashes and nearly a decade in prison left to serve – simply for blogging about free speech – his website informs.
In April of 2016 Saudi’s court has sentenced Issa al-Hamid, a founding member of the Saudi Association for Civil and Political Rights, to nine years in prison for another nine years on charges related to his civil rights work. Several other members of this association are serving similarly long-term jail.
This is only a small example that illustrates that the use of ambiguous language by Trump in what could have been a crucial speech of his Presidency will result in harming of a long-term positive change in the region.
Sadly US President was silent about the efforts of peaceful citizens of Arab countries struggling for democracy and human rights. Instead he used defensive statement “we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship” to conceal his inability or unwillingness to promote democracy and justice for all and thus to counteract extremisms and radicalism.
Sadly US President was silent about the efforts of peaceful citizens of Arab countries struggling for democracy and human rights.
Trump was not able to define sources of radicalism unlike his predecessor President George W. Bush who ten years ago in his speech delivered to the conference of the world democracy activists in Prague:
“In dark and repressive corners of the world, whole generations grew up with no voice in their government and no hope in their future. This life of oppression bred deep resentment. And for many, resentment boiled over into radicalism and violence.”
Expanding freedom is more than a moral imperative — it is the only realistic way to protect our people. Years ago, Andrei Sakharov warned that “a country that does not respect the rights of its own people will not respect the rights of its neighbors.” History proves him right. Governments accountable to their people do not attack each other. Democracies address problems through the political process — instead of blaming outside scapegoats. Young people who can disagree openly with their leaders are less likely to adopt violent ideologies. And nations that commit to freedom for their people will not support extremists — they will join in defeating them.
Bush perceived democratic changes inside the tyrannical countries, that would be generated under the pressure of its own nations and supported by the United States and free world, as the only effective strategy to counteract against extremism.
Ending tyranny requires support for the forces of conscience that undermine repressive societies from within. The Soviet dissident Andrei Amalrik compared a tyrannical state to a soldier who constantly points a gun at his enemy – until his arms finally tire and the prisoner escapes. The role of the free world is to put pressure on the arms of the world’s tyrants – and strengthen the prisoners who are trying to speed their collapse.
US President Donald Trump in his first speech outside of the United States on the land of non-free failed to emphasize the superiority of democracy over any tyranny or kingdom. He decided not to repeat after the Bush: “In the eyes of America, the democratic dissidents of today are the democratic leaders of tomorrow.” Since this is universal truth, which is independent of the consent of Trump or his Chief of Strategy, President choosing to be silent on this fundamental truth in his speech failed.