The Donald finally catches a break. His trip to the Middle East was planned weeks ago, long before the sacking of James Comey and the media transformation of the voluble sackee from goat to hero. The opportunity to get out of Dodge arrived just in time.
But an opportunity not exploited is an opportunity wasted, and President Trump turned in a boffo performance in Saudi Arabia, and used it as a springboard to more good things in Israel. The mere fact of tying together the interests of the Arabs to the Jews, by flying straight from one capital to another, made a point no one could miss.
He said some things the Muslims, from the Saudi King Salman up (or down) needed to hear from a president of the United States, and that no president before him was willing to say. Barack Obama was a hopeless case, of course, looking only for opportunities to scold and hector America for not being nicer to prospective assassins. But other predecessors held their tongues, whether in fear of breaching trade deals or merely manners, it was difficult to say.
George W. Bush, standing at ground zero as wisps of smoke and whiffs of the stench of death curled about ruin and rubble behind him, famously called Islam “the religion of peace,” conflating believers with belief. That was neither the time nor the place to say it, even if he actually believed it.
Everyone, even diplomats, has learned to expect impolite language from Donald Trump. He grew up, after all, on construction sites with men who rarely speak in perfumed words meant to hide meaning. He gave it to them in Riyadh with bark, knotholes and splinters.
The United States would be their strong and eager partners in the fight against the terrorism that is Islam’s gift to the world, he told them, but Muslims must lead the way by preaching and practicing tolerance and eliminating the preachers of hate in mosques and religious schools. This was a provocative message because thousands of these preachers and their mosques are financed by the Saudis. It’s hardly a coincidence that most of the terrorists of 9/11 were Saudi nationals, subverters of the faith or not, come to America to rain death from the sky in the name of Allah.
“There can be no coexistence with this violence,” Mr. Trump told his royal audience in Riyadh. “There can be no tolerating it. No accepting it. No excusing it and no ignoring it. They don’t worship God. They worship death. This is a battle between good and evil.”
There was none of the Twitter bravado and braggadocio that the president has become famous (or infamous) for, and the message of grim and stark reality was all the stronger for it. Can this be something Mr. Trump himself will take to heart? (One can always hope.) He didn’t mince words. He softened “radical Islamic terrorism” to “Islamist” or “Islamic terror,” a distinction truly without a difference, but if mush pleases the Muslims and H.R. McMaster, the president’s national security adviser who has been after the president to avoid calling everything by its right name, no great harm was done. Having supper with someone without reminding him that he should shower more often or take care to wash between his toes is only good manners.
“We are not here to lecture,” the president said. “We are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship. Instead, we are here to offer partnership, based on shared interests and values, to pursue a better future for us all. 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.” Even a person of faith not of the heart but something imposed at the point of a gun or the sharp edge of a scimitar.
Mr. Trump like presidents before him imagines that peace in the Middle East would be a nice legacy, and with a tweak and a properly crossed ‘T’ it might be won.
“We must take advantage of the situation,” Mr. Trump told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on arriving in Tel Aviv. “There are many, many things that can happen now that would never have been able to happen before.”
He praised Mr. Trump for his skepticism of the infamous deal with Iran. “I believe that together we can roll back Iran’s aggression and terror in the region.” He, too, seemed genuinely encouraged by the events of the weekend in Saudi Arabia. It was enough to curdle the cream in the coffee of the Democrats and their media acolytes waiting in ambush at home.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.
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