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Trump’s ‘Principled Realism’ Is Neither Principled Nor Realist

Trump’s Riyadh speech [1] was as shamelessly pro-Saudi as could be. He began by praising King Salman and the “magnificent” Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and followed it with a speech that could very easily have been written by their own propaganda office. He boasted about the massive $110 billion arms deal that he and Salman signed, and promised that he would help the Saudis get a “good deal” from our weapons manufacturers. (Because at least some of the weapons that will be sold are likely to be used in committing war crimes in Yemen, the American Bar Association’s human rights section warned [2] that the agreement may violate U.S. law.) Trump then touted a new center for “combating extremist ideology” that is being created in Riyadh, which he fawningly described as “this central part of the Islamic world.” The president then gushed over Salman’s “absolutely incredible and powerful leadership.” Salman’s own courtiers could hardly have been more sycophantic.

The frequent and sometimes forced religious rhetoric that Trump employed in the speech may have been intended to impress his audience, but at best it probably came across as nothing more than lip service. These parts of the speech seemed phony, and the words rang false when Trump said them. While he invoked divine judgment as a punishment for those that failed to confront terrorism, he had nothing at all to say about the violence used by the Saudis and others against other countries and their own people. He denied that combating terrorism had anything to do with a fight between sects, but his administration’s policy is to indulge and arm governments that stoke sectarian hatred while they also collaborate with jihadists against their mutual enemies.

At one point, Trump referred to the region’s “humanitarian and security disaster,” but he wasn’t talking about the nightmare being created by his hosts in neighboring Yemen. On the contrary, he saluted the Saudis and their coalition for their “strong action” in Yemen and had nothing to say about the famine and outbreaks of disease that their intervention has done so much to cause. The huge weapons deal that he made with the Saudis will help them to continue battering and starving their neighbors, and he has the gall to congratulate them for their crimes and dress them up as having something to do with peace and stability. The speech hypocritically combined stern moralistic language with complete indifference to the evils being perpetrated by our regional clients with our help. Trump dubbed his approach “principled realism,” but one looks in vain for any consistent principle here other than “our despotic clients are always right.” That isn’t realism as I understand it, and it requires the routine violation of many other principles at the expense of U.S. interests.

Trump spent much of his time denouncing terrorism and its destructive effects, which was fine as far as it went, but it was difficult to take seriously his rhetoric about “no tolerance” for terrorism when he is going out of his way to celebrate a government that has promoted fanaticism. Pairing the Saudi-led war on Yemen with the fight against jihadists as Trump did was absurd, and it deliberately ignores that the former has actively undermined the latter for years.


The final part of the speech consisted of Trump’s expression of his well-known hostility towards Iran. Since Iran’s voters had just delivered a sharp rebuke to their own hard-liners, it was especially unfortunate that Trump insisted on casting Iran as the main villain in the region while letting our despotic clients off the hook entirely. In response to Iranians’ endorsement of more international engagement and gradual reform, Trump demanded that Iran be further isolated and vilified. Trump’s whitewashing of our clients’ destructive behavior and his insistence on blaming Iran for almost all of the region’s problems are not new or surprising, but it is dishonest and deeply cynical. Calling on “nations of conscience” to isolate Iran is risible if we are supposed to believe that the Saudis and their allies belong to such a group, and it dangerously stokes tensions with a government that a genuinely realist administration would be interested in engaging diplomatically.

Near the end of the speech, Trump asked rhetorically, “Will we be indifferent in the presence of evil?” Judging from his total silence on the evil being done to the people of Yemen by his Saudi hosts with our government’s help, Trump has answered his own question with a resounding yes.

19 Comments (Open | Close)

19 Comments To "Trump’s ‘Principled Realism’ Is Neither Principled Nor Realist"

#1 Comment By SF Bay On May 21, 2017 @ 1:40 pm

At least so far, this trip has been about selling military equipment to Saudi Arabia, which by Trump’s standards as a businessman is a huge success.

The speech sounded nothing like the Trump that was elected as the new law in town, here to prosecute radical Islamic terrorists. He gave that speech as a wet kiss blown to Saudi Arabia. Nothing more.

We’re three days into this trip. I believe this was the easy part.

#2 Comment By jayneb On May 21, 2017 @ 1:51 pm

After the anti-Islam campaign Trump ran, his “Muslim ban”, etc. we get to watch him schmooze the Saudi royals because they gave him a shiny object. Oh and of course the great deal he made to shower them with weapons. Before his plane gets out of their air space, the Saudis will be back to throwing money at their radical Islamic clerics. And the Trumpkins will be saber rattling about Iran.

#3 Comment By Dave On May 21, 2017 @ 1:53 pm

My one hope from this Trump debacle is that it will push Europe to quit looking to the US for guidance on middle eastern policy, but I’m sure that won’t actually happen.

#4 Comment By collin On May 21, 2017 @ 2:03 pm

To be honest, how was Obama any better? Really Obama would have sold $70B of arms and forced Saudia Arabia a 30 minute ‘Kerryboarding’ on why it is bad to continue bombing Yemen. And yes, the endless hostility to Iran just after a Roubanai landslide victory was really bad. (However the deal is sticking so the Iranian people appear not be listening.)

In reality, this deal making trip and selling $110B to Saudia Arabia, seems to first true action on how Trump campaigned since the Carrier deal.

#5 Comment By Doug On May 21, 2017 @ 2:22 pm


When did Trump campaign on sending more weapons to the Middle East, fawning over the Saudis, and further entangling the US in Middle East wars (or at bare minimum, reinforcing the current level of entanglement)?

#6 Comment By Dan Green On May 21, 2017 @ 2:39 pm

I watched the whole speech. My guess is these Muslims will keep killing one another for eternity

#7 Comment By bob1968 On May 21, 2017 @ 2:56 pm

“I watched the whole speech. My guess is these Muslims will keep killing one another for eternity”

My guess is that low-information voters will propel Trump to a second term in 2020.

#8 Comment By a spencer On May 21, 2017 @ 3:11 pm

Reminder: KSA beheads people for “magic”.

#9 Comment By Adriana I Pena On May 21, 2017 @ 3:32 pm

Alas “principled realism” is nothing new in US foreign policy. Just ask the ghost of Patrice Lumumba, for one.

Also ask around in Latin America. Ask about the Condor plan. Ask the way the US aided and abetted the Argentinian junta,among others.

Not that much difference between Trump’s “principle realism” and Jeanne Kirpactricks’ distinction between authoritarian and totalitarian, except that Kirkpatrick was no vulgarian.

#10 Comment By Moi On May 21, 2017 @ 3:33 pm

“I watched the whole speech. My guess is these Muslims will keep killing one another for eternity”

And I’m guessing we’ll be invading and droning countries for eternity.

#11 Comment By Egypt Steve On May 21, 2017 @ 4:01 pm

A “good deal” for Saudi Arabia on arms purchases from the U.S. means they pay less than they would have without Trump. That means less profit for American arms manufacturers, and fewer jobs and/or lower wages at home. What happened to America First? What happened to getting good deals for us?

#12 Comment By a spencer On May 21, 2017 @ 4:54 pm

Every elite deep state Trump supporter is on bended knee to his master, the Saudi King.

#13 Comment By EngineerScotty On May 21, 2017 @ 5:03 pm

So basically Trump is a dumber, more corrupt George W. Bush, except not being a Texas politician, doesn’t feel the need to be nice to Latinos.

That said, were Mexico to buy tens of billions of Yanqui arms, I suspect Trump would bring his kneepads to Mexico City.

#14 Comment By Lefty On May 21, 2017 @ 5:17 pm

Best commentary on the Trump disaster today out there.

#15 Comment By Chris Chuba On May 21, 2017 @ 6:01 pm

This was Trump’s version of Obama’s ‘apology tour’

We’re sorry that we didn’t give you everything you wanted during the Obama years. Here’s all the weapons you want with no strings attached. Enjoy.

Yeah it was sickening, as was the press coverage of it. If you go along with the Foreign Policy Establishment, all will be well. Wow, Trump isn’t allowed to have a normal meeting with the Russians without accused of being too accomodating but he is praised for this outright bribery by the Saudi’s because it is what the FPE wants.

#16 Comment By collin On May 21, 2017 @ 7:34 pm


I am not saying what Trump did on arms sales was right, but I am saying a $110B arms to Saudia Arabia is a Deal for America. And Trump campaigned as a dealmaker who would get our allies to pay their fair share.

And this is a deal for Trump and I bet most people see that in headlines along with that ridiculous Orb picture.

#17 Comment By ADC Wonk On May 21, 2017 @ 10:12 pm

In the “interesting timing” department, the following also happened today:

The World Bank plans to announce Sunday at an event with Ivanka Trump, the U.S. president’s daughter and senior White House adviser, that Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates have pledged $100 million collectively toward a fund for women who own or want to start businesses, according to people familiar with the announcement.

The donations and the White House are not tied. Definitely not. No way! It is a total coincidence the $100 million dollar donation is being made the same weekend a $110 billion arms deal is announced. And never mind that Ivanka Trump is traveling to Saudi Arabia in her official capacity as an ‘Assistant to the President of the United States.’

Let’s recall Donald Trump’s reaction when it came to the Saudis donating to the Clinton Foundation. From October 2016:

When Chris Wallace asked Clinton about reports of conflicts of interest at the foundation, she responded, “I’m thrilled to talk about the Clinton Foundation because it is a world renowned charity and I’m so proud of the work that it does.”

Trump shot in that it’s a “criminal enterprise.”

“Saudi Arabia given $25 million, Qatar, all of these countries. You talk about women and women’s rights? These are people that push gays off business, off buildings. These are people that kill women and treat women horribly and yet you take their money,” Trump said. “So I’d like to ask you right now why don’t you give back the money that you’ve taken from certain countries that treat certain groups of people so horribly?

#18 Comment By Irony Abounds On May 22, 2017 @ 3:14 am

Trump truly admires the strongmen of the Middle East. They don’t have to put up with badgering journalists, the women can’t come out and complain about being raped, and they say nice things about him, and for Trump the later is what really matters. It is Trump’s mental illness that will define the disaster that is unfolding in real time. The only question is just how much permanent damage will be done to the American Experiment.

#19 Comment By kevin On May 22, 2017 @ 8:13 am

Irony Abounds:

Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary, just praised SA for having no protesters in the streets .

There is no doubt about it: while they mostly can’t do much about it, this crew profoundly hates American freedoms ( see also: appointment of David Clarke to a senior DHS position )