• Daniel Ethan Finneran

A Happy End In Arabia

May 2017

The only thing missing from President Trump’s Saudi Arabian welcoming party this weekend was a jaunty genie dancing to the soundtrack of “Prince Ali”. In the Disney film, Aladdin the diplomat is received in the city’s gates as a king. In the real world, where the arid Middle Eastern heat lends itself less to song and dance and more to shady siestas, President Trump arrived in a similarly regal fashion. He was welcomed with all of the pomp and circumstance one could imagine. Upon alighting from Air Force One, Trump was met immediately by King Salman with a solicitous embrace and a dragoman by his side. It was a salutation few foreign dignitaries will experience. Salman rushed to greet him with his kyphotic spine and hampered gait.

The Saudis definitely succeeded in putting on a reception fit for a king. Trumpeters filled the air with a tune, until their notes were suppressed by the deafening sounds of jets throttling up above. In their exhaust, the jets left lingering in the air the colors red, white, and blue. If only for a moment, the scene could’ve been a decent segue to a Super Bowl game. Just as suddenly, though, I returned to reality when little veiled ladies came out to hand bouquets of flowers to the president and First Lady. At that moment, I noticed that of the feminine faces on the screen, Melania’s was the only one unobscured by a veil. It was a subtle reminder of the West’s superiority—so long as gender issues are concerned.

Excepting Melania’s grace, the entire scene was a bit gaudy and ostentatious—a bit too flashy and fulsome for good taste. President Trump, however, seemed to enjoy the spectacle, and that may be all that matters. It’s hard to know if the veneration given him was superficial or sincere. Do the Saudis see Trump as a man to be manipulated who needs just a little dazzle to be persuaded, or do they see him as a strategic partner for their hesitant vision of a progressive future? I may be mistaken, but at that moment, it seemed to me as though America were beginning to matter in the region again. That’s not to say that it didn’t before, but perhaps it was beginning to do so in a new way.

President Trump’s speech was the meeting’s most highly anticipated event. Many observers were wary to hear what Trump had to say. He was now addressing directly a nation of Wahhabists and Islamists in Saudi Arabia, likely the same people he’d angered with his anti-Muslim remarks and ostensible “Muslim Ban”. Speaking in Riyadh, an eastern city equidistant from the Islamic tradition’s two holiest cities (Medina and Mecca; the third, of course, is Jerusalem, where Trump will arrive the following day) the President must have expected criticism. For it’s worth, however, Trump’s speech was quite effective.

In it, he explored two themes. The first was what we can assume to be the administration’s stance toward Middle Eastern policy. Until now, Trump’s official position on this matter wasn’t clear. The ardor with which he inveighed against President Obama’s policy might’ve led you to think his own would be much different. It seems as if it will be. In stark contrast with the Obama administration’s approach to the Middle East, Trump averred that decisions in the region will “be based on real world outcomes, not inflexible ideologies”. In choosing between the two, Trump fancies himself the champion of the former. He’s assuming the role as the realist, while imputing Obama to be the ideologue.

To the extent that Obama was an ideologue, Trump is not. I don’t mean that pejoratively, as though one position is enlightened and the other is not. And on that point, it’s not to say that Trump is an insipid head of state. History might actually favor he who bristles against ideology. Decades of unpliable policies, the type that sprout from intransigent ideologies, often fall short.

Never is this more important to remember than when thinking about the Middle East. More than anywhere else, it is here that realpolitik has its greatest role to play. And never is this more relevant than when discussing Saudi Arabia. America’s relationship with the Saudis has been oddly harmonious. It was the Saudi government that harbored the terrorist planning committee that went on to carry out the 9/11 attacks. Theirs is a puritanical, fanatical Wahhabist regime where females can’t drive, speak, or walk without censorship. Uniformity dictates that all citizens must be Muslim; anyone who wants to become a one must first convert. Sectarianism completely suffocates secularism in their theocratic monolith. This is a place where Western ideology, no matter how thoughtfully urged, goes to die. It’s a place that is among the best of its kind for being receptive to American interests, while at the same time being one of the most reactionary and regressive. It’s a place where ideology won’t work.

On this vein, Trump explained that America will seek “partners…not perfection” in the Saudi Arabia state. It’s not President Trump’s goal to nation build or edify, or to improve upon Saudi Arabia’s medieval morality. He added to this an unconditional assurance that “our friends (i.e., the Saudis) will never question our support”. Knowing how fast friends become enemies in Trump’s world, and how it’s ill-advised to deal in absolutes, this statement seems fraught from the start. But embedded in it is the quiet caveat that says this: so long as we’re friends, regardless of what you do, you’ll have our support. Does this mean a bad actor will be supported by the U.S. with impunity, so long as they are the president’s personal friend? If so, the Saudis can take Trump literally when he sings, “you ain’t never had a friend like me!”

The day’s second theme was terrorism. ISIS, although weakened, continues to be an intractable maelstrom in the Middle East. The group has contracted in power, exhausted its funds, and flirted with irrelevance, only to revive itself and come once again to the fore. Far from being eradicated, ISIS continues to terrorize most conspicuously in Syria and Kurdistan with added attacks at landmarks where infidels aggregate in the West. Trump rightly put the onus on those attending member states to stop ISIS once and for all. It is their countries, after all, that are affected most. By imploring them to take the lead in securing their own states, Trump showed a kind of “soft” paternalism, whereby America urges and encourages from afar, but doesn’t intervene. To emphasize this point, Trump implored the pan-Arabian leaders to “Ensure terrorists find no sanctuary on your soil”.

Trump continued to beseech the leaders, urging them to “drive them (the terrorists) out of your communities and places of worship”. Finding a three-word rhythm, his “Drive them out” anaphora became a memorable finish. He repeated it until hitting his peak, when he implored the Islamic emissaries to drive the radical terrorists “out from this earth”. This was a severe but striking coda to end with. Time will tell if any of the leaders take Trump’s mantra to heart.

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