They still found plenty to disagree with regarding certain portions of the president’s remarks, delivered before the heads of state of several Arab countries. But they said that Trump’s tone during his first address abroad as president assuaged their worst fears, born of his sharp, quasi-isolationist and anti-Muslim rhetoric from during the campaign.
“He hit most of the right buttons and missed many of the wrong ones,” Aaron David Miller, a former adviser to Democratic and Republican presidents who is now vice president and a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said in an interview with the Washington Examiner.
“He avoided offending as many people as he might have,” added Miller, a frequent Trump critic, who explained that Trump got one thing right in particular during this much-anticipated speech: “We’ve been infantilizing the Arabs and Muslims for far too long. We can’t fix problem for radical jihadi terror, and the onus of responsibility for dealing with this problem, on security and the economy, resides with the Arabs and Muslims themselves. We can’t fix this broken house; he got that right.”
Trump is on the front end of a nine-day foreign trip, his first as president, that is scheduled to take him from Riyadh, the Saudi capital, to Jerusalem for meetings with the Israelis, to Bethlehem and a visit with Palestinian leaders, and finally to the Vatican and an audience with Pope Francis.
Trump also is set to attend the G-7 meeting of Western economic powers who are among America’s closest allies and a NATO summit in Brussels. The trip has generated added scrutiny because of the president’s domestic troubles — an FBI investigation into Russian meddling could now reach as high as one of his advisers in the White House.
The trip abroad appears off to a good start, even if only because expectations set for Trump are so low.
Sunday’s speech lacked some of the sophistication and a nuanced approach to the problems in the Middle East that critics would have preferred. But it was a long way off from campaign proposals to halt all Muslim immigration to the U.S. and to walk away from Saudi Arabia, a key ally, if they don’t “pay” more for protection.
“President Trump returned American-Middle East policy to the post-war bipartisan consensus that had held for 60 years prior to [former President] Barack Obama initiating a ‘lead from behind’ foreign policy,” said Robert O’Brien, a Republican attorney in Los Angeles who has been critical of Trump on occasion but also was under consideration at one point to serve as Navy secretary.
“President Trump reaffirmed America’s role as the leading nation in the world and the Middle East,” O’Brien continued. “American exceptionalism is back and the incredible welcome that was afforded to President Trump in Saudi Arabia demonstrates that our allies couldn’t be happier.”
Trump ran for president as a populist. He suggested in speeches, debates and off-the-cuff remarks that he might discard decades of post-World War II foreign policy and embrace an inward-looking, non-interventionist approach.
He threatened to exit NATO, said he didn’t favor intervening in the Syrian civil war or elsewhere in the Middle East, and openly contemplated letting U.S. allies in Asia fend for themselves. Since the inauguration, Trump has shown little evidence of pursuing that course.
But given the president’s apparent lack of fixed ideology, and how aggressively he spoke about Muslims for all but the last few months, his speech in Saudi Arabia, a country that has spawned many of the worst practitioners of radical Islamic terrorism, was heavily scrutinized.
In particular, speculation swirled before the speech on whether Trump would utter the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism.” He used the phrase like a bludgeon against former President Obama and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton during the campaign.
Trump, who described his foreign policy as “principled realism,” was supposed to say “Islamist extremism” according to the prepared text, but veered from the script when he said “Islamic extremism.”
He applauded the efforts of Arab leaders to combat terrorism, fingering Iran as the biggest culprit, although he added: “There is still much work to do. That means honestly confronting the crisis of Islamist extremism and the Islamist terror groups it inspires. And it means standing together against the murder of innocent Muslims, the oppression of women, the persecution of Jews, and the slaughter of Christians.”