- By Arsalan SulemanArsalan Suleman is the former acting U.S. special envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a 57-member international organization based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
After campaigning to ban Muslims from entering the United States, President Donald Trump will travel to Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, for his first foreign visit. The trip will be a highly choreographed effort to project leadership in fighting the Islamic State, confronting Iran, and working for peace in the Middle East. It’ll also be a celebration of Trump’s unscrupulous approach to foreign policy. Though he’ll bask in his hosts’ acclaim, Trump’s militaristic, neo-mercantilist “America First” approach to foreign affairs will make the region and America less secure.
Eight years ago, in June 2009 in Cairo, President Barack Obama delivered his landmark “New Beginning” address, a sweeping effort to reset America’s relationship with Muslim communities globally. The Cairo speech epitomized Obama’s audacity-of-hope spirit: It sought to provoke introspective reform and confront difficult issues, including extremism, democracy, and human rights. Whereas Obama emphasized shared values and exuded empathy, Trump will radiate bluster and the valueless caricature of self-interest.
In announcing his visit, Trump proudly abandoned any pretense of promoting democracy and human rights, dismissing efforts “to dictate to others how to live.” A day earlier, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson showcased the administration’s decoupling of values from policy. That approach will surely win applause from Trump’s hosts, but unilaterally surrendering leadership on human rights is self-defeating cowardice, not tough-minded realism.
Those values are not just American, they are universal values that all U.N. member states have repeatedly affirmed. Terrorism and instability fester in environments rife with corruption and human rights violations, and a military-only counterterrorism policy will only lead to greater bloodshed. An effective counter-Islamic State effort must address governance, human rights, corruption, and economic opportunity — none of which appear to be part of Trump’s “America First” foreign policy.
Visiting Saudi Arabia won’t undo Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric, policies, and staff — all of which betray American values and undermine national security by reinforcing the narratives of terrorist groups like the Islamic State. Trump said he thinks “Islam hates us.” Some of his senior advisors, including Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, and Stephen Miller, think that the “Judeo-Christian West” is at war with “radical Islam.” Trump unsuccessfully tried twice to implement his Muslim travel ban and has proposed creating a Muslim registry and designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. Instead of using this trip to discard these counterproductive positions, Trump will seek — and receive — validation for many of them. But a Gulf Cooperation Council-issued “Not a Bigot” badge doesn’t travel well, and it won’t absolve Trump from addressing anti-Muslim discrimination and bigotry at home.
Like the Obama administration, which ultimately failed to meet the expectations raised by the Cairo speech, Trump will have to deal with heightened expectations, as his visit has sharply elevated hopes for greater American involvement in the region. His follow-on visits to Israel and the Vatican suggest a particular focus on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, but Trump has articulated no vision for a solution. Worse still, the impediments to peace, most salient among them Israeli settlements, continue to expand in defiance of warnings from the White House.
Trump won praise for quick cruise-missile strikes in response to Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in April, but that minor response was followed immediately by denials of any change in Syria policy. A nominally more aggressive policy on Iran has not included repudiation of the nuclear deal, though Trump has expanded American military commitments in the region, like greater support for the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen. That means deeper American involvement in yet another muddled conflict, with a population teetering on the brink of famine. The dissonance between greater military action and a retreating “America First” diplomatic and foreign aid posture portend erratic shifts in policy devoid of long-term strategic thinking.
By traveling to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Vatican, Trump is apparently seeking to cultivate interfaith support for peace. But crudely instrumentalizing religion is a dangerous ploy. While religion is a factor in the Israel-Palestine conflict and vis-à-vis the Islamic State, it is not the key or primary driver in either situation. These are political challenges, not religious ones. Religious actors can play an important role in promoting peace, but they must maintain independence from government to be credible. Further, Trump must not confuse Saudi Arabia as the representative of Islam — no government represents the religion. The ultraconservative Wahhabi interpretation is a minority, non-mainstream interpretation in the broader Sunni landscape. There are more than 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, but only about 20 percent live in the Middle East. The wide diversity of practice and interpretation of Islam around the world defies stereotyping.
In rallying action to fight terrorism, Trump will have to shed his disdain for “globalism.” Burden-sharing and collective action require multilateral cooperation, through initiatives like the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS and entities like the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Many Muslim-majority countries are on the front lines in conflicts against terrorist groups, which target Muslim communities first and foremost. Recognizing these facts and honoring their role in our collective self-defense will send a positive message of solidarity that rarely crosses Trump lips.
After the photo ops and summits are over, Trump will depart, but the inflated expectations will linger. Eventually that bubble will burst, revealing what we have known all along: Trump’s hollow, transactional “America First” foreign policy is disastrous.
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