Who better to lecture Muslims than Islam expert Donald Trump?
If there’s anything consistent about the Trump White House so far, it’s that people get appointed to positions for which they are totally unsuited. More than that: they’re frequently the worst possible candidates for the role. That starts with the president himself, of course – less presidential than your average radio phone-in ranter. It was evident in the appointment of , a man allegedly in hock to the Russian state, as national security adviser; of multiple to ; and of , who regards the film Reefer Madness as accurate social commentary, as the top law-enforcement official in the land.
In the latest example, the Sessions acolyte Stephen Miller, one of the , has been . Miller was the principal author of a speech, delivered in Riyadh yesterday, in which the president said he wanted to “deliver a message of friendship and hope and love”. He went on to argue that the fight against terrorism was “a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life and … people who want to protect life and their religion”. Trump even shied away from the phrase he blasted Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for avoiding: “radical Islamic terrorism”.
The new approach is at odds with everything we know about Miller’s worldview, and that of his longtime supporter Steve Bannon. (Miller’s are an entertaining study in one variety of radicalisation, if you can bear the grandiloquence.)
Almost all of Trump’s pronouncements on the subject stand in stark contrast to his words in Riyadh too (in October last year as women-haters who “push gays … off buildings”. This weekend, he accepted a medal from their king).
What was the real meaning of his speech, then? There were threads of sincerity. Trump certainly does believe Islamic State needs to be destroyed. But the more emollient language, and the venue, suggest other forces at work.
One result of the president being so easily influenced, and his staff being at each other’s throats, is what you could call a “default effect”. With its ship’s wheel jerked to and fro in opposite directions, the USS Foreign Policy ends up charting a fairly standard course. We saw that in North Korea: Trump’s bluster dissipated to reveal a familiar plan. The US embassy probably , as was at first mooted. Campaign talk of repudiating Saudi Arabia has likewise dissolved into arms deals and political cooperation.
That, however, is a strategic mistake. While Trump was courting the leaders of a country in which women are not permitted to drive, let alone vote, liberal Iranians were . Tehran is not truly democratic, as politicians are vetted by senior clergy, but it comes closer than any Middle Eastern nation, bar Israel and Turkey. And yet Iran was the country singled out for trenchant criticism, while Gulf regimes .”
This is not only hard to defend morally. Siding with Saudi Arabia and antagonising Iran in order to weaken jihadism won’t work, to put it mildly. Though the Saudi kingdom has taken part in military action against Isis, its state textbooks are . It has backed militant Islamist rebels in Syria, and continues to export an extremely intolerant version of Islam.
Trump cut a weird figure at Murabba Palace on Saturday night, like someone who’d stumbled into the wrong wedding reception. Weirder still was the sight of Bannon sitting next to a senior Muslim scholar. These two reached the White House by painting a picture of the world that is absurdly black and white. Of course they look bizarre and hypocritical as they try to untangle real problems. They may even be the worst of all possible candidates for the job.