Barack Obama had Cairo. That was where he delivered a speech calculated in its intention and high-flown in its language. It was 2009. He had just ascended to office. It was his moment: a young, fresh-faced American president on his first major visit to a Muslim country. He turned his address into an invocation, extended to the Muslim world at large.
Aides of Obama’s and partisans to his cause still talk about it. Weepy-eyed, they enthuse about Obama’s bold message, his stellar delivery, his message oozing positivity.
Obama will always have Cairo. And though it is too early to be definitive, Donald Trump may take something gained in Riyadh with him for the rest of his presidency.
Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia has been an unexpected, but not unwelcome, success.
When it was announced that Trump, a famously outspoken former reality TV star with a history of making inflammatory remarks about Islam and Muslims, would be making a speech on the faith in the capital of Saudi Arabia, hilarity ensued.
The probability of him saying something outlandish seemed tantalisingly high. Trump’s antics, both on the campaign trail and in office, seemed to presage catastrophe. The idea of his being diplomatic at all was, for many, laughable.
Yet this is what came to pass.
When Trump arrived, he was met with a gracious and seemingly sincere welcome from his hosts. This demonstrated staggering professionalism and competence on the part of the Saudis, given his track record of Islamophobic rhetoric.
In a previous life, as candidate Trump, he had accused the Saudi government of funding terrorists and trying to interfere in American politics. He had engaged in an unseemly online altercation with a member of the Saudi royal family, Alwaleed bin Talal, calling him ‘dopey’ and accusing him of wanting ‘to control our US politicians with daddy’s money’.
All this was gone. The Saudis may not have forgotten, but with a multibillion dollar arms deal in the pipeline, they do appear to have forgiven the president. It was an auspicious start.
And that was not all. Trump’s successes extended beyond basic courtesy.
Viewers of his speech were treated to a notably restrained and diplomatic Trump. Gone were campaign utterances full of fire. Though he is known for intemperance, Trump seemed measured and calm. His speech was well-crafted and inoffensive.
He spoke with seeming warmth about Saudi Arabia and about the region. He listed the many achievements of Muslim majority nations, and representatives from all who were mentioned were represented in his audience. He enunciated a doctrine, pious but unassuming, of common humanity, common religious faith, and common aspirations regarding peace and prosperity which all nations share.
His speech harkened back to his inaugural address, which, though it contained real scorn and painted a picture of ‘American carnage’, made token gestures towards unity.
Trump was well-briefed. He even managed to stay on course with his speech, not veering off topic. The president’s use of a teleprompter is improving.
In addressing the assembled dignitaries, Trump adopted a calm, quiet tone. It was suitably solemn; it rarely rose in intensity. This was not an oration for the ages, but it was a positive development for a man who has seriously struggled with appearing professional, effective and diplomatic.
Trump rightly invoked the vast numbers of Muslims killed by Islamist terror. He did so sensitively. This was less a demand that the Muslim Ummah get its house in order, and more a plea from a fellow citizen of the world, asking on the behalf of millions that positive steps to combat ‘terror’ and violence be taken. The contrast between Trump the candidate and Trump the president has never been more marked.
On the issue of violent extremism – rendered as ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ on the campaign trail – Trump was restrained.
Even more pleasingly for his hosts, Trump also led an effective and popular condemnation of Iran and its client, the Assad regime. Iran is the world’s top state sponsor of terror. Its proxies have destabilised states across the Middle East. Iran’s brand of Shia chauvinism has fed the flames of sectarian violence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere. It is only right that Trump should acknowledge this and resolve to act upon it.
Though he was diplomatic and controlled, Trump also managed to deliver one stirring command: Speaking of extremists, the president urged his listeners to ‘drive them out’ – out of their communities, out of their countries, out of their lives.
He repeated himself on that point. It provided the speech’s only crescendo.
Note that his sense of what terrorism is and where it lurks within appears to have changed.
This will still play well with domestic audiences, many of whom would have begun to wonder if Trump had meant any of the things he said while bidding to become president if he had not addressed this particular issue.
Whether this will be seen so positively worldwide is another matter. It is, after all, said rather often. Muslim leaders, and their publics are used to hearing it. But it seems likely Trump’s statement will be met with soft praise. This is something the leaders of the Muslim world will not resent, though many of them will consider it superfluous.
And a little of the superfluous is no bad thing. Just as platitudinous politesse can be of real use in diplomacy, so can stating the obvious play well back home.
Despite his many travails, this is impressive stuff from Trump. He appears to be handling foreign policy far better than the domestic front, where his enemies circle. But abroad, he carries with him the majesty of office and the expectations only the hope attached to an American president can sustain.
Perhaps he will do something to justify that hope. But first, he has continued the business of demonstrating competence and consistency. Such is the stuff of effective diplomacy, and maybe also of good governance at home.
This piece was originally published at The New Arab.