Yesterday afternoon, Donald Trump became Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. Or so will say Fareed Zakaria and the other doyens of elite opinion this morning, who stumble over themselves to offer praise every time President Trump manages to plow through a comparatively sane speech, string complete sentences together like a freshly minted state senator, and not casually alienate 1.5 billion members of a major world religion.
That's the extent of the good news about the president's hectoring, smug speech, in which he exhorted Muslims to smash the radicals in their midst, to "DRIVE THEM OUT OF YOUR COMMUNITIES" and then, puzzlingly, to also "DRIVE THEM OUT OF THIS EARTH," something that does not make any literal sense, seems kind of redundant, and presumably must be undertaken in hot pursuit across state borders. At least "radical Islamic terrorists" were noticeably absent from the text. The president was too busy groveling before the Saudis for creating jobs.
Largely devoid of apocalyptic language, non-sequiturs, boasts about the magnitude of his Electoral College triumph, and vicious attacks on the press, it was perhaps the first speech he has ever delivered that you could imagine another sentient being in the Republican Party giving, and it was painfully obvious that the president himself had nothing to do with composing it. POTUS on his own probably couldn't get within 1,000 years if he had to correctly place the wonders of ancient Egypt on a timeline of global history.
The trouble with the speech is not that it was demented, like most of what passes by President Trump's lips, but that it is a reminder of what is waiting should the Republicans still be in charge of the country for any extended period of time in the post-Trump era: the policy baseline, the tone, and the analysis of the region's predicament were all boilerplate Republican inanity, grounded in a monomaniacal obsession with terrorism as the cause of all strife on Earth and bizarrely fixated on Iran as the wellspring of instability and violence. The "Good versus Evil" and "Iran versus the moderates" components of the speech had the sticky Hungarian fingers of fake PhD Sebastian Gorka all over them and they made astonishingly little sense even if the words themselves could be diagrammed properly.
In Trump's speech, as in mainstream GOP discourse, Iran is a singular menace to the safety and stability of societies from Tel Aviv to Manama. The threat to the Iran deal is barely concealed. "For decades, Iran has fueled the fires of sectarian conflict and terror," the president thundered, conveniently overlooking the role of his Saudi hosts in developing and exporting the austere Islamic operating system that has destabilized societies from the Philippines to Syria to West Africa. Remarkably, the president singled out Iran to the total exclusion of any other state actors, all of whom, in the Gorka Park reading of modern history, are innocent of all responsibility for what has transpired in the Middle East over the past 40 years. Even the most hardline critics of Tehran wouldn't subscribe to a version of history in which the Iranians should shoulder all of the blame for the tragedies in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq.
The obsequious praise offered by President Trump to the Saudis was also embarrassing, and completely unnecessary. "I have always heard about the splendor of your country and the kindness of your citizens, but words do not do justice to the grandeur of this remarkable place," the president said to an audience of dictators, layabouts, and thieves who operate one of the most unforgiving, corrupt, and brutal dictatorships in the history of the world. While he is hardly the first president to sacrifice himself on the altar of America's strange alliance with the Saudis, he certainly outdid himself in the extent to which he was determined to fluff the fragile egos of his royal benefactors. Saudi elites who are still bitter that former President Obama didn't dance eagerly to their every demand surely went to bed satisfied last night. Trump has never met a ruthless potentate that he didn't like, and he certainly didn't break any new ground yesterday.
Forget for a moment the mind-blowing spectacle of Trump not just distancing himself from anti-Saudi remarks made on the campaign trail, but seemingly saying and doing the precise opposite. In most cases, the president discovering that his election rhetoric and Obama-era bluster are unsustainable in office is a good thing. But throwing shade at the Saudis might have been one of the few good ideas he ever had. The Ghosts of Twitter Past in this instance were a series of missives leveled at Obama and Hillary Clinton for cozying up with the enemies of LGBTQ folks and women in Riyadh, and at Saudi Arabia for not doing our bidding without question. Perhaps the tweet par excellence on this subject was issued by our illustrious leader on Sept. 10, 2014: "Tell Saudi Arabia and others that we want (demand!) free oil for the next ten years or we will not protect their private Boeing 747s. Pay up!"
Pay up the Saudis did, agreeing to funnel $110 billion into the U.S. arms industry, so that future payloads might be directed by the Saudis at Yemeni civilians and perhaps at Iran directly instead of by proxy. And on the same day President Trump gave the speech, it was announced that his daughter Ivanka's shameless "foundation" would be the recipient of $100 million in Gulf largesse, another move he criticized the Clintons for, with the difference that the Clinton Global Initiative had an actual humanitarian purpose and was operated by people with public spirit and a purpose broader than selling midnight handbags on QVC.
At this point, Trumpian hypocrisy and grifting are sui generis. The more disturbing thing about the speech was that it showed how little America's foreign policy elites have learned about the Middle East in the 40 years that they have spent wrecking and exploiting it. Far from the bedrock of a stable regional order, U.S. alliances with Gulf dictatorships and Egyptian, Jordanian, and now Turkish strongmen are part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Conspicuously missing from President Trump's speech was any mention of the underlying causes of systemic dysfunction and extremism in the region: a series of states led by self-interested gangsters who leverage the power of their militaries and their aristocracies to enrich themselves at the expense of their citizens; deteriorating infrastructure that suffers from under-investment and graft; bloated military and security sectors that suck the productive wealth and energy out of their societies and which fail to deliver even the simplest public goods like electricity; the securitization of politics, with a huge assist from the United States, and the tendentious belief that American military power is needed to secure the region's energy bounty; the climate disasters that are fast making the region borderline uninhabitable half the year; and the failure to resolve the conflict between Israel and its neighbors, which stands in the way of commerce, equality, and peaceful coexistence for so many countries.
These pathologies, to which America has been and continues to be a generous contributor, are the more important variable in the rise of ISIS and likeminded terrorist organizations. President Trump, unsurprisingly, demonstrated zero understanding of U.S. policy history in the region in favor of demonizing Iranians who only the day before had re-elected their relatively moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, for another term with 57 percent of the vote. One does not have to be naïve about the realities of power in the Iranian regime to see that this result could have been applauded and exploited rather than ignored. At the least, a wise leader would not have gratuitously insulted the Iranians at such a portentous moment.
But we do not have a wise leader.
Nowhere in President Trump's speech did he address the rights of women, the aspirations of the region's young activists, the need for political and economic reform, or the futility of the sectarian violence that has torn apart so many societies. His speech was disgusting, nonsensical, and profoundly un-American. It was all terrorism, Iran, and empty flattery. In other words: par for the course for the GOP in 2017. Instead of addressing the pressing issues facing the Kingdom and its neighbors, and instead of offering a bold roadmap for the region based on enduring American values, Trump turned to the tyrants that he so ardently admires and flatters and emulates and said, "I thank you for the creation of this great moment in history."