Trump’s ‘Principled Realism’ Is Neither Principled Nor Realist
Trump’s Riyadh speech 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 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.