To understand why Donald Trump’s speech in Riyadh on Sunday was such a profound abandonment of his stated — or at least strongly implied — principles on the fight against terrorism, it’s helpful to quickly remember how his two most recent predecessors approached the problem rhetorically. For all their foreign-policy differences, after all, former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush sounded fairly similar notes in how they talked about terrorism. Both emphasized that the U.S. is not at war with Islam. Both made it clear that they viewed religiously inspired terror attacks perpetrated by Muslims to be perversions of the faith, not a reflection of its true values. And both touted the importance of building fruitful alliances with the Muslim world, particularly on matters of terrorism and security.
During Obama’s two terms in office, he received a huge amount of criticism for sticking to this approach. Critics accused him of refusing to use the term “Islamic extremism,” of downplaying the threat of terrorism, and of being “politically correct” in his refusal to acknowledge the role of the faith itself in the security challenges facing so much of the world. Some of these critiques came from mainstream Republicans. Other, more vociferous and spittle-flecked iterations came from members of the far-right anti-Muslim “counter-jihadist” movement centered around organizations like Frank Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy. This group, which includes David Horowitz, Debbie Schlussel, and others, believes America is, in fact, at war with the Muslim faith itself (though, in their view, the mainstream is in denial about this). As Vox’s Zach Beauchamp put it in his indispensable article on the subject, these figures comprise “a vast and growing ecosystem that exists just out of sight of most Americans — one that has spent years pushing the notion that there is a creeping, quiet plot to take over America from within.” Muslims are inherently warlike, argue the Gaffneys of the world, will never assimilate, and deep down, no matter what else they want to claim, are hoping to run roughshod over the democratic West, replacing its norms and institutions with Sharia law.
This toxic and bigoted view has spread far and wide, helped along by the explosion of far-right outlets like Breitbart and its (even) less rigorous and fair-minded cousins in recent years. Which is why so many people were disturbed to see Trump appoint Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, and Sebastian Gorka, all of whom subscribe to these views, to prominent positions within his administration (Bannon has called Gaffney, who has spread some truly unhinged conspiracy theories about the Obama administration’s supposed connection to terror groups, “one of the senior thought leaders and men of action in this whole war against Islamic radical jihad.”) On the other hand, Trump has also appointed more orthodox foreign-policy figures like James Mattis and H.R. McMaster, and whatever one thinks of them and their records, they are not counter-jihadists. In fact, they likely view Gaffneyesque hysteria as a hindrance to truly understanding and fighting back against terrorism (that’s the near-consensus among other members of their intellectual community, at least).
So there has always been an ideological battle raging within the administration. And if you take Trump’s remarks today at anything like face value — an admittedly fraught exercise given his tendency to hurl himself violently off-script at any moment — the McMaster cohort has routed the opposition.
As you read the following transcript of those remarks, remember that they were delivered by a president who railed at Hillary Clinton for not using the term Islamic to describe the threat of terrorism; who proposed a ban on all Muslims entering the U.S.; who later signed an executive order banning refugees and citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries, a move that foreign-policy experts agreed served no useful security purpose; who criticized the “apology tour” Obama ostensibly conducted early in his first term; who has called for the murder of ISIS members’ families; and who appointed the aforementioned counter-jihadists to positions of power. Yet this is what Trump said in Riyadh:
America is a sovereign nation and our first priority is always the safety and security of our citizens. We are not here to lecture — we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship. … Young Muslim boys and girls should be able to grow up free from fear, safe from violence, and innocent of hatred. And young Muslim men and women should have the chance to build a new era of prosperity for themselves and their peoples. … But, in sheer numbers, the deadliest toll [of terrorism] has been exacted on the innocent people of Arab, Muslim and Middle Eastern nations. They have borne the brunt of the killings and the worst of the destruction in this wave of fanatical violence. Some estimates hold that more than 95 percent of the victims of terrorism are themselves Muslim. … Saudi Arabia is home to the holiest sites in one of the world’s great faiths… Every time a terrorist murders an innocent person, and falsely invokes the name of God, it should be an insult to every person of faith. Terrorists do not worship God, they worship death. … This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations. This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life, and decent people of all religions who seek to protect it. This is a battle between Good and Evil.
What’s remarkable about these excerpts is how closely they track with Obama’s rhetoric, and progressive rhetoric on this subject more generally. His observation that terrorists (meaning ISIS in this case) kill more Muslims than anyone else is a frequent liberal rebuttal to the Gaffneyesque view that Muslims themselves are the problem. The word Islamic, meanwhile, was uttered by Trump three times, but not once was it followed by extremism or terrorism.
Now, to be fair, there were also elements of the speech that had a bit of a Trumpian flair to them — naturally, Trump bestowed upon the Middle East the responsibility to “drive out” terrorists without acknowledging just how many of those terrorists have been created by past U.S. foreign-policy blunders. And Trump didn’t take the usual tack of referencing the golden age of Islamic thought and culture, seeming instead to reference a disproportionate number of historical wonders — “Giza, Luxor and Alexandria” — that predated the faith’s rise in the Middle East. So it might be the case that Trump’s most ardent supporters can squint, spin around a few times to dizzy themselves, and claim to see in his remarks coded references to his once-muscular-sounding approach to fighting extremism. (Many counter-jihadists like Gaffney believe that everyday Muslims practice taqiyya — the practice, almost entirely fictional and based on misreadings of Islamic law, of lying about their real-world intentions to advance the goals of jihad and Shariah. Maybe Gaffney can justify Trump’s remarks to himself by claiming Trump is engaging in an American version of taqiyya to appease all those damn p.c. liberals.)
There’s a broader policy context here, too, of course, that it’s important to not lose sight of. During the speech, Trump touted a $110 billion arms deal he just signed with the Saudis at a time when Saudi Arabia has been accused by many rights organizations of the near-indiscriminate bombing and killing civilians as part of an ongoing fight against Houthi rebels in Yemen. In fact, one of the Obama administration’s final significant foreign-policy acts was to block the sale of some weapons to the Saudis specifically because of the Kingdom’s conduct in Yemen. For Trump to have signed this agreement — and to have done so as he explicitly signaled a lack of desire to make any demands of our Saudi allies with regard to their human-rights abuses — is a serious moral failure. The Yemenis living in fear of American-supplied weaponry probably aren’t all that interested in whether or not Trump’s rhetoric is Islamophobic. (“Trump to Reward Saudi War Crimes With Weapons” went the headline of an article by a Human Rights Watch researcher.)
But still: Words and framing do matter in the long run, especially when it comes to a subject like terrorism in which the words politicians do and don’t use have taken on such a heightened political potency. And overall it’s hard to read Trump’s speech and not view it as a forceful rebuke to the worldview advanced by Miller and Bannon. Which is particularly odd given that it was supposedly written by Miller himself. This sort of incoherence and short-term flip-flopping isn’t new to Trump, of course, but think about all the people who supported him because of his supposed toughness on the questions of terror and jihad. He just gave a speech extolling Islam, extolling the Saudis themselves, and specifically denouncing the idea of an inherent link between terrorism committed in the name of Islam and the faith itself. Even if, as all the evidence suggests, we’re in a new political world where nothing matters and everything is crazy — and even if tomorrow Trump returns to his more explicit anti-Muslim rhetoric — this is a shocking turnaround.