Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia appears to have been very successful. This is partly because the Saudis have worked out his personality and are treating him like a King. Having a huge image of him projected onto the side of the hotel he is staying at was a master stroke. Other Presidents would have found it gaudy, but Trump would have loved it.
The pageantry was not subtle, but the real import of Trump’s visit, and especially his carefully crafted speech, was to announce a new alliance between America and the Sunni autocrats of the Arab world, aimed at Shiite Iran.
No more Bush-like paeans to “freedom” or even Obama-esque warnings about being on the “right side of history” — Trump dispensed with the usual presidential to-be-sures about the democratic shortcomings of America’s regional allies and said flatly that defeating terrorism “transcends every other consideration.”
The Sunni monarchs and rulers will like this. Trump has little regard for democratic norms back home, so of course he is not going to preach to them about human rights and democracy. He openly admires strongman autocratic rulers. So they have a US President who isn’t lecturing them and has clearly come down on their side vs Shia Iran.
And who knows it may work. Defeating Islamic State and associated groups is the priority. I’ll take Saudi Arabia and Egypt leaders over Islamic State every day. But also let us remember that Islamic State is primarily Sunni, not Shia.
Trump is offering, in short, a war on terror without the pretense of idealism. There has always been a strong odor of hypocrisy hanging over the U.S. relationship with regimes like Saudi Arabia, and perhaps there’s something refreshing in Trump’s “we are not here to lecture” candor.
The United States has, after all, very little real leverage or will to remake Arab societies in America’s image — particularly ones that buy $110 billion of our weapons. All too often, U.S. criticism of the democratic failings of its allies seems meant more for our domestic consumption than for foreign audiences, who have learned to tune it out. And presidents of both parties have almost always prioritized core U.S. interests — like the Iran nuclear deal over suffering Syrians — when forced to make a choice.
There is a lot to criticise Trump for, but his approach here may not be a bad one. Let’s see how it goes.