In his four months in office, President Trump has steadily been rebranding himself away from the outsider candidate willing to drift far afield of the conventional wisdom of US leadership, and toward a rarely well-spoken, and oftentimes downright surly facsimile of a modern, mainstream US president. With his speech in Saudi Arabia over the weekend, that transition appears complete.
Neither the Trump who accused Saudi Arabia of paying ISIS, nor the one comfortable in talking about the 28 pages of the 9/11 report, which implicated Saudi Arabia in supporting al-Qaeda in the lead-up to the attack, was anywhere to be seen, let alone the one who expressed discomfort with all things Islam and was talking about wholesale travel bans. Today, it was just the new Trump, who curtsied meekly before the Saudi king, while lavishing praise on the “magnificent kingdom.”
Of course, Trump isn’t any more sincere in this new guise than he was in the former, clearly focused heavily on what the Saudis could do for him, bragging up the “jobs” to be created in his latest juicy deal, providing arms for another decade of Saudi Arabia’s reckless wars, while presenting the Saudis and the rest of the GCC as good “Children of God” who are united with him to fight the forces of evil.
That too was a dramatic change, as Trump had previously felt the need to present terrorism as something inherently wrong with Islam as such, and today took the more Bush-Obama tack, that the terrorists aren’t really religious at all, and they just “worship death.” And while Trump’s old viewpoint took him down some very unhealthy trains of thought, so too does his mainstreamization, and the warmongering consequences that branding the war an apocalyptic battle of good versus evil has been doing for decades already.
But in a very heavily worked speech that was designed to say everything the Saudis wanted to hear, nowhere did President Trump seem more comfortable than in the part attacking Iran is uniquely evil among the region’s governments, blaming them for the “fires of sectarian conflict” in the region, and bragging up his attack on Syria as part of a decisive move against the Iranians.
This all doubtless played very well to the targeted audience, even if his rattling off a list of terrorist groups early in the speech and then praising the Sunni-dominated GCC for all having listed the only Shi’ite group in the bunch, Hezbollah, as terrorists, felt like a bit of a miscue.
His comfort with transitioning his general hostility into one directed at all things Shi’ite likely as much to play to Israel as to the GCC, did not go unnoticed, however, with even USA TODAY, which cheered Trump for taking his general tone more mainstream, complaining that he seems to be favoring Sunnis over Shi’ites at this point.
Which isn’t itself a surprise: the US has comfortably been backing oil-rich Sunni “allies” and vilifying Shi’ite Iran for decades. Still, Trump’s eagerness to make the speech heavily about religion, and to bringing the “three faiths” together to fight what very much sounds like a religious war against America’s enemies. That this all starts with Iran isn’t necessarily a sign that Trump’s jihad is going to stop there.