If Trump wants real success in the Middle East, rhetoric must match reality
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In 2009, Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaAir Force Academy will no longer allow transgender students to enroll The very early, boring Democratic primary: Biden v. Bernie Senate needs to stand up to Trump's Nixonian view of the Fed MORE addressed a gathering at Cairo University with a soaring speech on the importance of breaking down the barriers of misunderstanding between the U.S. and the Muslim world.

Taking his message directly to the Egyptian people in one of his earliest public addresses, Obama championed the progress of personal freedoms for the people of the Middle East, along with economic advancement and combating the root drivers of extremism. The speech set expectations for the U.S.’s regional policy extremely high, and some of the sentiments expressed made U.S. partners uneasy; eight years and three ongoing wars later, Obama ultimately found that his initially optimistic vision for a new U.S. approach to the Middle East was overstated.


Perhaps this explains President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpButtigieg on Mueller report: 'Politically, I'm not sure it will change much' Sarah Sanders addresses false statements detailed in Mueller report: 'A slip of the tongue' Trump to visit Japan in May to meet with Abe, new emperor MORE’s back-to-basics, transactional approach he outlined in his Riyadh speech and first Middle East trip. Despite a campaign replete with anti-Muslim rhetoric, Trump managed to bring a message of post-Obama reset to the Arab Islamic American Summit that regional leaders, particularly in the Gulf, were hoping to hear. He (mostly) managed to avoid faux pas, highlighting the need for the U.S. to work with its regional partners on counterterrorism against ISIS and Al-Qaeda as a core priority. He paid lip service to mutual religious respect as the key to effective partnership. He pinpointed Iran and its proxy network as one of, if not the, main driver of regional instability. By sticking to his talking points, Trump likely impressed his listeners at the summit and some in the Washington foreign policy establishment.


But for all the relative success of the President’s speech at the leaders’ summit and his trip so far, Muslims in both the U.S. and abroad appear unconvinced by the President’s rhetorical turnaround, citing his actions rather than his words. The U.S. has experienced an uptick in crime against Muslims and Islamic targets from 2015, likely influenced by Trump’s anti-Muslim statements during the campaign. In response to this atmosphere and two attempts at rolling out travel bans against a number of Muslim-majority countries, tourism from the Middle East to the U.S. has dropped, possibly resulting in billions of dollars in lost revenues for the U.S.

So, where Obama alienated the leaders of key Middle Eastern partner countries, Trump is alienating the people. What is required for the true revitalization of the region is an approach that combines elements of both. The experiences of Obama and Trump so far highlight the need to cultivate a positive image with both leaders and publics in the Middle East for the advancement of U.S. interests and a positive American image.

First, rhetoric matters. The language that candidate Trump used to describe Muslims, portraying them as untrustworthy and dangerous, is not so easily forgotten after one speech. If the President’s goal is truly “to conquer extremism and vanquish the forces of terrorism,” he will have to make sure not to revert to the provocative language he used to fire up his base on the campaign trail.

Casting Muslims as “others” plays into the hands of extremists, and executive actions like the attempted travel ban create negative perceptions of the U.S. that fuel terrorist recruitment. If Trump is truly serious about counterterrorism and signaling “shared resolve” and “mutual respect” to Muslim partners, rhetorical backsliding to the language of the campaign is not an option. While foreign leaders may be willing to overlook his inflammatory language in the pursuit of political and security interests, the people of the region are unlikely to look the other way, and the U.S.’s image and interests will suffer as a result.

Second, the President cannot altogether ignore concerns over human rights or environments that foster extremism when dealing with its partners. The President and his Secretary of State have both said that this administration will not use foreign policy to publicly berate regional partners for human rights concerns, a message that was well-received in Riyadh.

Privately raising concerns over human rights or specific policies is not always a problematic approach in and of itself. There are certain instances where it does behoove the U.S. to pressure its partners to do more behind the scenes. For example, pushing the Saudis to crack down on private support for terrorism is a particularly sensitive area given the political challenges involved.

But the President can still publicly champion values like open political discourse and free expression as a means to lessening the root drivers of extremism. Washington would be unrealistic to expect democratic transitions anytime soon from many of its regional partners, but focusing on the potential for real, substantive political engagement can help breed hope for traditionally disenfranchised publics. It would also make criticism of human rights abuses in states like Iran ring less hollow.

On the positive side of this equation, the President should seize opportunities to promote progress made by partners on shared values. Low on energy after his arduous flight, Trump skipped an opportunity to address the Saudi public directly through a Twitter forum held by Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s MiSK foundation, a nonprofit promoting youth empowerment and leadership. MiSK is a component of Saudi Vision 2030, the reform plan that includes a social liberalization program for empowering youth, increasing employment for women, and improving public education.

With Saudi Arabia home to over 40 percent of the Arab world’s Twitter users, Trump could have directly engaged a Saudi public likely skeptical of his seemingly newfound respect for their religion in discussions on their future. While some of the more liberal of Vision 2030’s reforms are likely to be rolled out at a glacial pace, there are signs for the cautiously optimistic that change is underway. Such change and public engagement in a traditionally repressive society should be noted as a step on the right path, and the U.S. should provide steady encouragement to go further.

Third, it would not hurt the administration to exhibit a degree of humility when it comes to addressing sensitive issues like the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The President likes to trade on his image as a “disruptor” as part of his ability to conclude deals, and seems to fancy himself to be the one to bring both parties to an agreement. But there are a number of factors that make the short-term prospects for peace shaky. A potential Palestinian leadership crisis, the continuing, slow-moving criminal investigation of Prime Minister Netanyahu, and a general acceptance of the status quo are inertia blocking the peace process. The process promises to be neither easy nor quick, and an approach reflecting that reality is called for if either side is to take the U.S. seriously as a peace broker.

As Obama said in Cairo in 2009, “No single speech can eradicate years of mistrust.” Trump may be charming the Middle East’s leaders, but he will need to follow words with actions if he is to un-tarnish the U.S.’s image with the region’s people.

Owen Daniels is assistant director of the Middle East Peace and Security Initiative in the Atlantic Council's Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

The views of the contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.