Just when everyone here was deep in preoccupation with partisan fantasy over whether Donald Trump should be impeached or removed by the 25th Amendment, the president changed the subject. Presidents can do that.
He flew to Saudi Arabia to introduce himself to the assembled leaders of the region — 50 of them — as “a representative of the American people to deliver a message of friendship and hope.”
Boilerplate diplomatic language or not, it was a refreshing change even if interrupted in the continued din of media snarling and sniping back home. The Trump scandals, real or mostly imagined, aren’t going to go away no matter where the president goes, but the events in Riyadh were a promising focus on foreign policy that needed attention and repair after Barack Obama’s destructive leadership from behind.
The president used many religious references in addressing the assembled Sunni leaders in Riyadh, but he avoided the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” that soft-liners in the White House, directed by H.R. McMaster, the president’s national security adviser, prefer. Mr. McMaster can be pleased that the president’s rhetoric has “evolved,” and perhaps now understands that ISIS is only pushing a “perverse” interpretation of Islam.
But the president didn’t succumb to the mealymouth rhetoric of Barack Obama, who, dedicated to his Iran deal, could not have delivered this president’s tough speech. There was no trace in Riyadh of an apology for American “arrogance” or invoking language to undercut the importance of American leadership in the world.
The new president did not mince words, telling the assembled leaders that “Muslim nations must be willing to take on the burden, if we are going to defeat terrorism and send its wicked ideology into oblivion.” He described the frequent innocent blood in the streets as the struggle 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.” And that was before the latest massacre, this time in Manchester.
Mr. Trump said he wants young Muslim boys and girls, like boys and girls everywhere, to grow up “free from fear, safe from violence, and innocent of hatred,” just as a British-born suicide bomber of Libyan descent, known for chanting Islamic prayers loudly on the street, was making last-minute adjustments to his suicide bomb devised to kill young boys and girls innocently attending a concert of their favorite pop star, Ariana Grande, at an arena in Manchester.
Words can’t capture the perversity that drives such evil, but everyone knows the source, where such evil is encouraged and abetted by ISIS, both in radical mosques and on social media where the horrific carnage in Manchester was celebrated with glee. The pageantry and symbolism of diplomatic visits like Trump in Arabia can easily appear to be mere window dressing, mocking the deeply held and universal desire of the decent folk everywhere to live in peace. But presidential rhetoric can make a difference.
During the first days of Mikhail Gorbachev’s revolutionary (for Russia) doctrines of perestroika (“restructuring”) and glasnost (“openness”) in 1986, I visited the Soviet Union and met Russians behind the Iron Curtain, many of them journalists, who were beginning to feel the first faint breezes of freedom, and entertaining the first realistic dreams of escaping Soviet tyranny. They described how inspired they were when they first heard Ronald Reagan call the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” The Gipper got a hard time from critics at home, who said his message was harsh, undiplomatic and unhelpful Cold War rhetoric. But these Russians, who knew how evil the empire was, heard a powerful voice speaking for them.
President Trump’s exhortation to Muslims to drive extremists “out of your places of worship,” “out of your communities,” “out of your holy land” and “out of this earth,” was a similar summons to hope. Forging bonds of friendship, security, culture and commerce require carrots along with sticks, of course, in this case billions of dollars for the Saudis to advance safety and security in the defense against terrorism, crucial to checking the hostile ambitions of Iran. Such deals are expensive, but they focus both mind and body.
The Saudis have spent much of their oil wealth in support of mosques, schools and cultural centers across the Muslim world and even among us, hotbeds of anti-Western and anti-secular values and hatred of Christians and Jews. It was no coincidence that nearly all of the villains of Sept. 11 were Saudis. It’s no good denying that for the sake of good feelings wrought by Mr. Trump’s travels. The investment in friendship, modern arms and technology can pay dividends if the Saudis change their message and actually work to defeat terrorism. That’s a very big “if,” but it may be a risk worth taking if Muslims of good will get the president’s message, loud and clear, in dollars and good sense, and take it to heart.
• Suzanne Fields is a columnist for The Washington Times and is nationally syndicated.
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