Trump’s Vainglorious and Counterproductive Summit in Saudi Arabia
Donald Trump’s first foreign trip as President of the United States will not take him to the capital cities of Mexico or Canada, the two countries visited first by presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama. Instead, in keeping with Trump’s disruptive rhetoric and manifest admiration for authoritarian leaders over his first four months in office, he will make his initial overseas foray to Saudi Arabia, perhaps the most repressive and authoritarian of America’s close allies—although there is increasing competition for this dubious accolade from other Trump favorites like Egypt or Turkey.
In these days of Orwellian doublespeak, it is perhaps not surprising that Saudi Arabia should host of a series of meetings designed to “promote values of tolerance, co-existence and cooperation.” Saudi authorities have created a website for Trump’s visit declaring: “We are embracing our responsibility to win the war of ideas and defeat terrorism through tolerance, moderation and compassion.”
The obvious point for a visiting U.S. president to make in this context would be that the kingdom could set a better example in the world if it practiced a bit more tolerance and co-existence at home, instead of jailing non-violent government critics and human rights defenders, sentencing liberal advocates of more tolerant Islam to lashing and imprisonment, denying essentially all rights to women, and beheading leaders of the minority Shi’a Muslim community. Co-existence might also be appreciated by non-Muslims in the kingdom who are not permitted to practice their faith.
While much of President Trump’s conduct on his inaugural foreign outing is anyone’s guess, we know he will not do that.
Trump’s strategy to defeat ISIS is far removed from tolerance, moderation, and compassion. It could more accurately be described as turning a blind eye to corruption, repression, and sectarianism, with key partners like Saudi Arabia exemplifying these traits.
Trump has repeatedly emphasized his readiness, and apparently his preference, to work with a range of disreputable authoritarian governments from Russia, to Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt in a grand alliance against ISIS. Trump’s approach overlooks the fact that the practices of such governments drive violent extremism. Corruption, denial of basic rights and freedoms like freedom of expression, fixing elections, and enabling security forces to abuse citizens with impunity fuel grievances that are easily exploited by violent extremists.
Indeed, it is now a recognized pattern for such leaders to actively court opposition that is as extreme and violent as possible to legitimize their own repressive practices. Dictators seek to provide their people with the binary choice between their authoritarian order and an alarmingly extreme alternative. Rulers like Erdogan and Sisi characterize a very wide range of their political opponents as terrorists, regardless of whether or not they have engaged in political violence.
Authoritarians and violent extremists fuel each other in a vicious cycle of mutual dependency. Authoritarian rulers don’t fight terrorism, they perpetuate it.
Moreover, combatting terrorism has become a near universal pretext for governments to violate human rights. Trump himself is eager to overlook human rights concerns by seeking to impose his controversial executive order limiting access to the United States for Muslims and refugees.
By holding a summit with leaders and representatives from 55 majority Muslim countries in Saudi Arabia, while excluding Iran, Trump is in danger of placing the United States on one side of a fierce sectarian divide between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, which has been one of the major drivers of conflict and of violent extremism.
ISIS is a virulently sectarian anti-Shi’ite organization, which draws many of its ideas from extreme anti-Shi’ite preachers who propagate their messages of hate from inside Saudi Arabia. Trump’s efforts to build an effective global coalition against ISIS and similar extremist groups will fail unless the United States can persuade its allies to stop fueling sectarian conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain and elsewhere.
Trump’s high-profile visit to Saudi Arabia will likely exacerbate sectarian divisions and strengthen authoritarian rulers whose practices are fueling the grievances exploited by the violent extremists he claims he wants to fight. As such it will be counterproductive.
Instead of rallying authoritarians to a fight against terrorism (which they will gladly interpret to mean U.S. support for jailing journalists, nonviolent critics, and political opponents, as well as crushing independent civil society organizations) the Trump Administration should pursue a comprehensive strategy to counter violent extremism that goes beyond a narrow emphasis on military force and stresses preventive measures grounded in human rights, nondiscrimination, and inclusive, accountable governance.