With his opening words in Riyadh, “Our friends will never question our support, ” President Trump sought to roll back perceptions that America’s ambitions in the Middle East are in retreat.
By design or coincidence, his remarks Sunday mirror those made in a similar setting five years ago by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who told Arab League leaders in Cairo that “Russia will always back its allies.”
Back in December 2011, the US under Obama did nothing to stop President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt from being toppled during the Arab Spring.
And in 2011 Lavrov, who recently was a guest of Trump’s at the White House and has been at the center of controversies Trump left behind in Washington, was also trying to win over the US’s Arab allies.
Fast forward to today and Trump is challenging Americas old Arab allies about “honestly confronting the crisis of Islamist extremism and the Islamist terror groups it inspires.”
His sales pitch — and this is the tough bit given his anti-Muslim campaign tirades — to a room full of leaders of Muslim-majority nations: We are all in this together.
“This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations, ” Trump told them. “This is a battle between good and evil.”
Honey, not vinegar, is his tactic.
Trump said, “We are not here to lecture — we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship. Instead, we are here to offer partnership — based on shared interests and values.”
But the biggest danger for Trump is perhaps not the message itself, but buying in to the hubris around his trip.
His Saudi hosts are touting his visit as historic. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir called it “an historic event that opens a new page between the West and the Islamic Arab world.”
To confer such expectations upon one man — specifically Trump, who is trailing so much Muslim baggage and defies expectations and his advisers almost daily — seems the epitome of over-egging an ego.
Not far from Trump’s speech in an ornate convention center, an unemployed man in a ramshackle bazaar surmised that Trump had come to the cradle of Islam not to ask for help but to apologize for his anti-Muslim rhetoric.
Yet Trump appeared to swallow his hosts’ hyperbole, telling the 50-plus assembled presidents, kings, prime ministers and emirs that “Terrorism has spread across the world. The path to peace begins right here, on this ancient soil, in this sacred land.”
Trump is not the first American president to come to this desert kingdom hoping overseas success can scotch his troubles back home. But the benefits of this speech may be a slow burn when measured against the firestorms that are sweeping his White House.