President Donald Trump is answering critics who call him “anti-Islamic” by making his first trip overseas to Saudi Arabia, to meet with Arab leaders to talk about fighting the so-called Islamic State.
“It lays to rest the notion that America is anti-Muslim,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told reporters Thursday, saying it would “change the conversation with regards to America’s relationship with the Islamic world.”
After Riyadh, Trump will travel to Israel and the Vatican—a tour meant to unite the world’s great religions against radicalism and to put a marker down for restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, senior administration officials told reporters Thursday.
The trip indicates that Trump is re-aligning the White House with Saudi Arabia’s and Israel’s anti-Iran position, while the Obama administration had sought to stay more neutral in order to deliver the Iranian nuclear deal. It’s also a signal that Trump is returning to the Bush-era reliance on Sunni Arab strongmen to quell a roiling Middle East, and it’s an in-your-face rejection of critics who called him anti-Islamic.
Senior administration officials said Saudi Arabia has invited leaders who “who share the values and the ideas and the visions… President Trump shares,” to discuss how to step up the fight against the so-called Islamic State, come up with a “war plan” to fight extremism, and most of all, to plot how to counter Iran’s influence throughout the region.
In return, Saudi Arabia has pledged to use its influence to drive likeminded Gulf and Mideast leaders to invest more in the ISIS and al Qaeda fight—and to step up efforts to check radicals in their midst, al-Jubeir said.
Trump will be meeting with members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, as well as members of the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation, minus Iran and Syria, an Arab official added. The Arab and administration officials spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the visit.
In Israel, the goal is to get both sides back to the negotiating table after deadlocked talks were abandoned in 2014 under the Obama administration. Trump will “reinforce our relationship… and lay out what we hope is a peaceful future,” the administration officials said, following meetings in Washington with the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas this week, and Israel’s prime minister earlier this year.
Trump had already thrown both leaders strategic curveballs by asking Netanyahu to “hold back” on settlement building, and announcing that he has accepted a one-state or two-state solution. The president’s comment marked the first time in decades that a White House had indicated a willingness to abandon hope for a Palestinian state, and a warning to Abbas that unless the Palestinian National Authority negotiates with Trump, they might end up permanently stateless.
“This president is challenging the policies of the past that have had limited success,” National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster told the crowd at the Israel’s Independence Day celebrations in Washington this week, in defense of Trump’s willingness to lay waste to longstanding U.S. policies. “Some… describe him as a disruptor. They’re right. And this is good…He wants to see results.”
Saudi minister al-Jubeir thought the unorthodox approach might just deliver.
“Given his creative thinking and his unconventional approach to this conflict, the probability he can succeed is fairly high,” al-Jubeir said Thursday.
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The officials said the Arab mini-summit was born from outreach by the Saudis to Trump officials just after the election, a turnaround from the diplomatic deep freeze that had settled in between Riyadh and the Obama administration.
“It felt like the days and weeks after 9/11 when Saudi Arabia realized the responsibility it had in defeating radical terrorism,” one of the officials said of initial meetings with Saudis. “There is a similar feeling,” of being responsible for stemming radical ideology but also of being threatened by Iranian influence from its support of armed rebels in Yemen to helping prop up Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
None of the officials used the term “radical Islamic terrorism,” during a briefing with reporters, a term the Saudi Kingdom has asked previous administrations to avoid. Al-Jubeir would not comment on the apparent change in terminology—though Trump himself still uses the term in speeches and rallies.
“If Trump’s embrace of Saudi Arabia produces some capital he can cash in to encourage a regional de-escalation with Iran, that would be a good thing,” said Colin Kahl, a national security official from the Obama administration. “But it will only work if the Trump administration is willing to engage Iran too, which they appear unwilling to do. And an unconditional embrace of the Saudi position on Iran in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere, it is more likely to escalate rather than de-escalate the sectarian tensions tearing the region apart.”
“This could eventually drag the U.S. into a military confrontation with Iran,” warned Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council, of the Trump re-alignment. “Even if it doesn’t go toward that, the Iranians are likely going to move further into the Russian orbit and we’re going to see a more bipolar region with Hezbollah, Russia and Iran on one side and Israel, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. on the other.”
The Obama administration had hoped instead to get Riyadh and Tehran to talk to each other, and accept each other as regional powers. “Their problems are resolvable,” said Parsi, who writes about this issue in the forthcoming book Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy.
Saudi Defense Minister Prince Mohammed bin Salman said this week that there could be “no dialogue” with a government that was “planning for the return of the Imam Mahdi,” because that means the Tehran government believes it has to rule all the Muslim world for its savior to return. That was a religiously based jab by a Sunni prince at a Shi’ite Muslim government. (The Sunni and Shi’ite faiths are each waiting for a “Mahdi” who will appear and rule before the world ends—but each rejects the beliefs of the other.)
“These are things you say when you want to skip diplomacy and go to confrontation,” Parsi said.
“Trump has been courting the Saudis from the first days of his tenure,” said former CIA officer Bruce Riedel, director of the Brookings Intelligence Project. “The Saudis are delighted that human rights and gender equality issues are off the table and confronting Iran is on it.”
He said they expect to be able to prosecute the war against Iranian backed Houthis in Yemen with little complaint from Washington because of it. “But their expectations are high and they have doubts about the competence of the President to deliver after his rocky start,” he said.
Senior administration officials said there would be “deliverables” on each step of the trip, possibly policy pronouncements or the launching of projects, but they offered no details.
They described Trump’s foreign policy goals as loosely defined but with an end target in sight, pragmatic rather than wedded to an ideology.
That could render the trip a listening tour rather than a lecture—or be a cagey Trumpian bargaining technique. Those who want membership to this particular club are bidding against each other for admission, wondering who among them is offering America more, be it troops for the physical fight or money to support education efforts to fight radical ideology.
Administration officials insist contentious subjects like human rights aren’t off the table, but they’re discussed behind closed doors, unlike the tongue lashing the last administration gave some Arab leaders, the officials said.
One of the senior officials cited the release of American aid worker Aya Hijazi from a Cairo jail as an example of a return to quiet diplomacy focused on results rather than publicly shaming the offending country or leader.
“Let us take a shot at doing this in a respectful manner,” one of the officials recalled telling Hijazi’s family and friends, who had wanted to protest loudly about her detention. The quiet diplomacy helped secure her release along with several others, the official said. “People don’t want to be lectured.”