Both Barack Obama and Donald Trump began their presidencies with outreach to the Islamic world—and that, with one exception, is where the similarities between their respective Middle East doctrines begin and end. President Obama’s June 4, 2009, Cairo speech, delivered at Al-Azhar University, can be read as the manifesto for a post-America world. President Trump’s May 22, 2017, Riyadh speech, in startling contrast, was an unapologetic exposition of his America First creed.
The insinuation, in some quarters, remains that Barack Obama is secretly a Muslim and perhaps even a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, the activist Salafists who aim to destroy the West from within using the strategy of “civilisational jihad”. Key political Islamic organisations in the United States, including the Council of American-Islamic Relations, are impenitent affiliates of the transnational Muslim Brotherhood movement. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, in the form of Mohamed Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party, ruled the country from June 2012 to July 2013. Activist Salafism and Salafi jihadism (Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, Boko Haram, Jemaah Islamiyah, and so on) are not one and the same but they are first cousins. Embracing the views of Sayyid Qutb, the Muslim Brotherhood scholar who argued for the restitution of an Islamic state in Egypt and throughout Dar al-Islam, might not automatically turn a Muslim into a terrorist but it does encourage an apposite degree of contempt for the kafir (disbeliever).
Almost completely unreported at the time of the December 2, 2015, San Bernardino massacre was the fact that the husband-and-wife terrorists, Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, were aficionados of the works of Sayyid Qutb. The homicidal duo posted on Facebook their allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State before murdering fourteen Americans and wounding another twenty-two at a work-related Christmas luncheon. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton responded to the slaughter-fest by intoning against the laxity of America’s “gun safety laws”. Presidential candidate Donald Trump, on the other hand, made an explicit connection between a certain kind of modern-day Muslim and terrorism: “I would close up our borders to people until we figure out what’s going on … We don’t learn … The whole thing gets worse as time goes by.” President Obama, to be fair, upgraded his erstwhile depiction of Islamic terrorism from “workplace violence”—à la the 2014 Fort Hood Massacre—to “larger notions of violent jihad”. Whew! Barack Hussein Obama, the apotheosis of modern-day chic, was prepared, at last, to make a connection, however indirectly, between the “religion of peace” and the murder of the innocent.
But it was not always so. President Obama’s Cairo Address could almost have been written by a Muslim Brotherhood scribe, blaming as he did the anti-West “tensions” in the Muslim world on European colonialism and Cold War machinations that treated Muslim-majority countries as “proxies without regard to their own aspirations”. Additionally, American-style “modernity and globalisation” caused “many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam”. The only thing omitted from his mea culpa was Christendom’s involvement in the Crusades. It was, naturally, Islam that paved the way “for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment”. That said, Obama singled out the likes of Al Qaeda for censure, but even then he tacitly blamed 9/11 on the West itself for creating the “tensions” that “violent extremists” in the Muslim world were able to exploit.
The Cairo Address, however, strayed from its Muslim Brotherhood theme in the defence of the State of Israel’s right to exist (albeit with a caveat) and the overture to Shia Iran. At the core of President Obama’s so-called Muslim outreach, then, was not his personal involvement in the Sunni revivalism of the Muslim Brotherhood but a modern-day leftist ideology that shares its broader critique of the West. From the point of view of Barack Obama, at least, his presidency would attempt to rectify or even heal the “tensions” epitomised by the Muslim world’s rightful “mistrust” of the West, and in so doing usher in a golden new age.
President Obama’s leftist fervour, as we now know, turned out to be a disaster: the removal of US combat troops from Iraq by the end of 2011, the “cautiously optimistic” stance on Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt and testy relations with his anti-Muslim Brotherhood replacement, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the alliance with Turkey’s Islamist strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the subsequent arming of Muslim Brotherhood-associated militias in Syria, the toppling of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi with no succession plan in place, the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, collusion with Israel’s enemies in the passage of UN Resolution 2334, and so on ad infinitum speaks of a Middle East doctrine entirely misdirected and utterly ruinous.
That anybody would seriously defend President Obama’s performance can be explained by James Burnham’s portrayal of an ideologue:
He can’t lose because his answer, his interpretation and his attitude have been determined in advance of the particular experience or observation. They are derived from the ideology, and not the subject of the facts.
Barack Obama, himself, did not “lose” in his acquiescence with Muslim Brotherhood (political Salafist) endeavours or the Shia version of that in Iran—he was simply let down by those not open-minded enough to share his version of a “new age” of global peace. Thus, if Tehran is spending its multi-billion windfall from the Iran nuclear deal arming and financing Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon and the Popular Mobilisation Forces in Iraq and the Houthi insurgency in Yemen, that is hardly the fault of the Obama administration, which acted in good faith and from the highest principles. It is in this context—not least the Sunni–Shia divide exacerbated by Barack Obama’s wrong-headed appeasement of Iran—that President Trump’s Riyadh speech has to be understood.
A cynical interpretation of Donald Trump’s formidable welcome by the Saudis, not to mention the leaders of fifty other Muslim countries who attended his address, is that Trump moderated his campaign-era anti-Muslim rhetoric in order to sign a US$400 billion trade-and-investment agreement with Saudi Arabia, which includes a US$110 billion Saudi-funded defence purchase. To whatever extent this might be true, though, the fact remains that the vulnerability of Saudi Arabia and other Sunni countries in the neighbourhood necessitating the new compact was aggravated by the Obama administration’s (unreciprocated) tilt in the direction of Tehran back in 2015. President Obama’s plan to lessen America’s role in the Middle East has wholly backfired.
How much Donald Trump toned down his rhetoric in Riyadh to mollify his hosts is also open to question. The oratorical centrepiece of his speech, an entreaty to Muslim governments everywhere to confront radical Islamic hatemongers, does not sound watered-down at all:
Drive. Them. Out. Drive them out of your places of worship. Drive them out of your communities. Drive them out of your Holy Land, and drive them out of this Earth.
In tone, at the very least, President Trump’s re-statement of the origins of Salafi jihadism or radical Islamic violence is light years away from President Obama’s PC orthodoxy. Muslims, in the Middle East and elsewhere, are not the perennial victims of Western hegemony but the architects of their own destinies: “Muslim nations must be willing to take on the burden, if we are going to defeat terrorism and send its wicked ideology into oblivion.” Who can ignore, for instance, that Osama bin Laden was finally tracked down in Abbottabad, a military town in Pakistan?
The Wahhabis (quietist Salafis) of Saudi Arabia and Qatar also have a record of sponsoring Salafi jihadism, if only to keep terrorists and sundry radicals out of their own territory. Just as problematic, of course, is that these countries have subsidised Salafi preachers and mosques throughout northern Africa and Indonesia. Wahhabism and the Muslim Brotherhood are not one and the same thing, just as Salafi jihadism has its own particularities but, as Robert G. Rabil argues in his indispensible Salafism in Lebanon, they share a paranoia about Western notions of individual freedom and secular democracy—and individuals can easily transfer from one ideology to another. Saudi Arabia built a 1000-kilometre wall to protect itself from the Islamic State, an irony given that it has nurtured and financed firebrands and zealots to colonise the wider world. We have Saudi and Qatari money, in part, to blame not only for home-grown terrorism but also for the politicised Islam that seeks to subvert the West through civilisational jihad in the form of parallel or alternative systems of justice and community.
The naysayers are perfectly within their rights to be sceptical about King Salman bin Abdulaziz’s announcement, during President Trump’s visit in May, of the establishment of a Saudi-funded “Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology”. However, we might note that, along with King Salman and President Trump, Egypt’s President Sisi also placed hands on the illuminated orb during that photo opportunity in Riyadh. The anti-Trump pundits were quick to lambast “the creepy glowing orb” moment as a farrago, and yet perhaps no individual has done more to combat the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi jihadism—“extremist ideology”—than Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who openly declares his “deep appreciation and admiration” for President Trump’s leadership in the Middle East. In early June, shortly after President Trump’s trip, Egypt, the UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia all cut off relations with Qatar for continuing to sponsor the Muslim Brotherhood and terrorism. Who is to say what kind of leverage the Trump administration will be able to leverage in the years ahead?
President Obama, in contrast to President Trump, refused to invite the Egyptian president to the White House. For Barack Obama, as is the case with so many leftist ideologues in the West, Islam and violent jihad enjoy only the most incidental of relationships. As he asserted in Cairo back in 2009 and, more or less, maintained throughout his eight-year tenure in office: “Islam is not part of the problem in combating violent extremism—it is an important part of promoting peace.” This is the sand on which President Obama’s Middle East doctrine was built. Robert G. Rabil summarises the challenge of Islamic revivalism this way: “It is a war against a triumphant religious ideology that cloaks itself in the sanctity of the sacred and the history of ‘authentic’ Islam as applied to the first four rightly guided caliphs.” Thus, the accusation of inconsistency between Trump’s ebullient performance in Riyadh and his administration asking the Supreme Court to revive its temporary ban on travellers from six Muslim-majority nations where vetting is problematic or non-existent, has little substance. Distinguishing the millennialist fantasist from the “modern” believer is no simple matter, a reality even President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a practising Muslim, has been prepared to acknowledge.
The real roots of 9/11 go all the way back to the 1920s and the creation in Egypt of the Muslim Brotherhood by Hassan al-Banna, which brings us to the Israel–Palestine question. Zionism, and subsequently the establishment of Israel, was always an anathema for the Brotherhood because it involved the founding of a Jewish state on the site of the last caliphate, the Ottoman empire, which was and must always remain the sacred domain of Dar el-Islam. For not only Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, but also for Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority (PA), the existence of Israel cannot be countenanced. The failure of Barack Obama and John Kerry to factor this into their calculations was another reason why the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations were doomed from the start. President Trump, at the very least, appreciates that the PA is not going to make peace with Israel unless the Sunni world throws off the vestiges of Islamic revivalism and forces the PA to accept the enduring reality of a modern Jewish state in its midst.
The one exception to the Obama administration’s disastrous Middle East policy was its support of the mostly Kurdish YPG-SDF against the Islamic State in northern Syria. This, more through happenstance than long-term intent, began at the time of the 2014-15 Siege of Kobani and culminated in plans to capture the Islamic Sate’s de facto capital, Raqqa. Complicating matters, however, was President Obama’s cosy relationship with Turkey’s Erdogan, an unrepentant Muslim Brotherhood sympathiser. At the time of Barack Obama’s departure from the Oval Office, the United States had tasked the YPG-SDF with seizing Raqqa while leaving its heartland to the north unprotected against the Turkish Armed Forces and assorted pro-Turkish militias.
Effectively handling Erdogan, hell-bent on transforming his country into a Sunni version of the Islamic Republic of Iran, will be the real test of Donald Trump’s Middle East doctrine. Erdogan insists that the Muslim Brotherhood is “ideological” rather than “terrorist” but this, as we have seen in his support of Muslim Brotherhood-inspired militias in the Syrian civil war, is risible. In the end, if the Trump administration is to be successful in the Middle East, Trump will not only need to “obliterate” the Islamic State and Al Qaeda in Syria, with the leadership of the SDF, but also protect the SDF’s Rojava/Northern Syria territories from invasion by the Turkish armed forces. For that to occur, however, he will have to endure a political and diplomatic firestorm initiated by Turkey. And that, in turn, might only be possible with the forthright backing of the Sunni Arab countries. President Trump’s performance in Riyadh was galvanising, but facing down the ire of Erdogan’s Turkey, a member of NATO and a regional economic giant, will be no mean feat.
Just as difficult, but probably no less important, the Trump administration might have to forge an anti-Erdogan understanding with Putin’s Russia, a development that would take place with the bogus Russiagate scandal looming in the background. Not only did the Obama administration promote chaos and mayhem in the Middle East between 2009 and 2017, its leftist supporters are now making it difficult to rectify their own party’s disastrous policies.
It is not easy to believe that things will turn out well in the Middle East. There are too many dark, apocalyptic forces at work and, as we have seen in Brussels, Paris, Boston, San Bernardino, Orlando, Sydney, Manchester, London and on and on and on, “extremist ideology” has now insinuated itself into everyday life in the West. One of the great delusions of the modern-day Left, amongst all the others, is that violence and terrorism do not work. President Obama said as much in his 2009 Cairo speech: “Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed.” It might be wrong but of course it succeeds. Today the Salafi jihadists mow us down on London Bridge and tomorrow the civilisational jihadists explain that if only we introduce more sharia-compliant laws and behave in a less Islamophobic manner there will be no need for terrorism. PC orthodoxy, which sums up the spirit of President Obama’s Cairo remarks, is wholly incapable of comprehending the situation. Give me Donald J. Trump’s straight talking over Barack Obama’s obfuscating humbug any day. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, at any rate, would agree.
Daryl McCann wrote on Palestine in the May issue. He has a blog at http://darylmccann.blogspot.com.au, and he tweets at @dosakamccann.