Political Editor – LeNora Millen
President Donald Trump offered a message of unity Sunday as he urged the Arab world to confront extremism during a highly anticipated speech in the birthplace of Islam.
“This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations,” the president said to dozens of Muslim leaders in Saudi Arabia. During his speech, Trump defined the struggle against extremism as “a battle between good and evil.”
Trump called on leaders to unite and do whatever is necessary to defeat Islamist extremists, by making an impassioned plea to “drive out” terrorists. Campaign rhetoric against Muslims and his impassioned plea was noticeable in that Trump toned down his harsh rhetoric about Muslims.
Radical Islamic Terrorism—words Trump criticized then-President Obama for not using were also not mentioned in Trump’s speech. The seemingly calculated move may have been a signal that he heeded advice to employ a more moderate tone in the region after using the phrase repeatedly as a presidential candidate.
Trump singled out Iran as a major source of funding and support for militant groups. His words aligned with the views of his Saudi Arabian hosts and sent a tough message to Tehran the day after Hassan Rouhani won a second term as Iran’s president.
“Terrorism has spread all across the world. But the path to peace begins right here, on this ancient soil, in this sacred land,” Trump told leaders from about 50 Muslim-majority countries representing more than a billion people.
“A better future is only possible if your nations drive out the terrorists and drive out the extremists. Drive them out! Drive them out of your places of worship, drive them out of your communities, drive them out of your holy land and drive them out of this earth.”
Trump’s first speech abroad set the stage for him to show his strength and resolve, in contrast to attempting to distract from the scandal after the firing of former FBI Director James Comey.
In stark contrast to Trump’s campaign rhetoric and his labeling Muslims once as evil, he described the conflict in the region as one between good and evil, not between civilizations. In a matter of fact tone—Trump said that Washington would partner with the Middle East but expected more action in return.
“There is still much work to be done. That means honestly confronting the crisis of Islamic extremism, and the Islamists, and Islamic terror of all kinds,” he said. Observers who were privy to the advance excerpts of the speech were aware of the words “Islamist extremism” written in the speech, yet not uttered by Trump. A White House official pointed to Trump’s fatigue for the switch. “Just an exhausted guy,” she told reporters.
The term “Islamist extremism” refers to Islamism as a political movement rather than Islam as a religion, a distinction that Trump had often criticized the administration of his predecessor, Barack Obama, for making.
As a candidate, Trump proposed temporarily banning Muslims from entering the United States. As President, he ordered temporary bans on people from several Muslim-majority countries, which were blocked by courts that ruled they were discriminatory.
Trump received a warm welcome from Arab leaders, who seemed to look past his campaign rhetoric, focusing on Trump’s promise of addressing Iran’s influence in the region, a commitment they viewed as lacking in Obama.
“For decades, Iran has fueled the fires of sectarian conflict and terror,” Trump said. “It is a government that speaks openly of mass murder, vowing the destruction of Israel, death to America, and ruin for many leaders and nations in this very room.”
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (L) receives U.S. President Donald Trump for the Arab Islamic American Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia May 21, 2017.
Making no mention of human rights concerns, the Trump administration framed the massive military deal Saturday as an opportunity to create potentially tens of thousands of new jobs in the U.S., adding that it would also reduce the burden on U.S. military forces by bolstering the kingdom’s ability to provide for its own security.
The Trump administration’s deal includes tanks, helicopters, combat ships, Patriot and THAAD missiles, radar and communications, and cybersecurity technology.
Under President Barack Obama, Washington backed Saudi Arabia in its Yemen war with logistical support, including refueling of coalition aircraft by the U.S. military, and intelligence sharing.
A report by the D.C. based Center for International Policy cited the Obama administration as offering over $115 billion worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia in 42 separate deals, more than any other U.S. administration. The Obama administration’s decision to pull back on some military sales underscored the tense relations with Saudi Arabia.
Human Rights Watch described the sale as rewarding “Saudi war crimes” with weapons. The rights group has documented 81 apparently unlawful coalition attacks since the start of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. The rights group says it was able to identify American weapons had been used in many of those attacks.
“Not only Trump failing to acknowledge human rights, but he praised Saudi Arabia for its strong action in Yemen,” said Kristine Beckerle, a Saudi Arabia researcher for Human Rights Watch.
Amnesty International said the “glaring absence of human rights from Trump’s agenda” in talks with Gulf Arab rulers will only embolden further violations against critics, peaceful dissidents, and human rights defenders.
Both rights group have called on the U.S. to immediately halt all arms transfers that could be used by members of the Saudi coalition in Yemen.
Soon after Trump embarked upon his trip on Friday, he was hit with more accusations surrounding Comey’s firing. A federal investigation into his campaign’s ties with Russia last year is ongoing and creating much concern for the Trump administration,