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The Geopolitical Education of Donald Trump

On Sunday, President Donald Trump delivered a speech to the leaders of dozens of Muslim-majority countries in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, written by bombastic travel ban architect Stephen Miller. Most of the world cringed in advance. As it turned out, Trump’s speech marks a radical departure from the crude, obnoxious and flat-out hysterical rhetoric we’re all accustomed to hearing from him and (some of) his aides on the subject.

“To the leaders and citizens of every country assembled here today,” he said, “I want you to know that the United States is eager to form closer bonds of friendship, security, culture and commerce…We are not here to lecture — we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship. Instead, we are here to offer partnership — based on shared interests and values — to pursue a better future for us all.”

“It was frankly the kind of speech President Obama could have given,” CNN’s Fareed Zakaria said, and he’s right.

Those who stressed about this beforehand weren’t wrong to worry. Thanks to the president of the United States, our relations with Mexico are worse than at any time since Pancho Villa. He screamed at Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull after he’d been in office for barely a week. He even said Canada is behaving disgracefully as recently as a month ago.

The travel ban alienated our friends and allies in Iraq back in January (can you believe that was only four months ago?), and he said plenty of unhinged things about Muslims in general and Saudi Arabia in particular when he ran for president. “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” he said last year to cheers at one of his campaign rallies, “until our country's representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.” 

He lied—or at best fabricated a false memory—about “thousands” of Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the 9/11 attacks. “I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down,” he said, again at a campaign rally. “And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering.”

“Who blew up the World Trade Center?” he asked on Fox News. “It wasn’t the Iraqis, it was Saudi — take a look at Saudi Arabia, open the documents.”

“Islam hates us,” he said to CNN’s Anderson Cooper a little more than a year ago, as if “Islam” is some kind of a monolith. Obviously lots of Muslims hate us, but plenty don’t, and many of them are our friends. Practically everyone with even an ounce of experience in that part of the world can attest to the fact that a huge range of opinions toward the West exists in the Middle East. It’s as obvious and basic as the fact that lunch follows breakfast. That Trump apparently didn’t know this and spoke about the entire region as if everyone is our enemy alarmed diplomats, foreign policy professionals and foreign correspondents across the entire political spectrum.

No one who can’t tell the difference between a friend and an enemy will ever win a war in the Middle East or anywhere else. I can promise you that. Trump complained endlessly that Barack Obama refused to publicly identify “radical Islamic terrorists” as our enemy. Well, we’re also not going to get anywhere if we refuse to acknowledge that Muslims from Morocco to Kurdistan and even—to a drastically lesser extent—Saudi Arabia are our allies. We especially won’t get anywhere if we treat these people so terribly that they can’t work with us anymore.

Something huge has changed in the meantime, though. Perhaps it’s partly the fact that, per Trump’s own policy, we’re now arming Kurdish Muslims to fight ISIS. The president must have realized, at some point in the recent past, that the Saudis are more vigorously opposed to the Iranian regime than we are and that they’re softening their attitude toward the Israelis. His National Security Advisor HR McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis most certainly have described the lay of the land to him by now, and he apparently listens to them more than he listens to the likes of Steve Bannon. He acknowledged in his speech that the overwhelming majority of people murdered by terrorists are Muslims—a detail that’s hard to square with the notion that every Muslim on earth is programmed as a jihadist.

Professional haters of all things Islamic like Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer and Frank Gaffney are unteachable. You can point out to these people that Muslim-majority Albania is among the most pro-American countries in the entire world and they’ll still describe it as a jihadist menace. It’s what they do.

Donald Trump is different. He’ll never change his personality. For the rest of his days, Trump’s gonna Trump. He is, however, capable of learning new things and reversing himself.

It’s probably safe to say at this point that the president’s earlier views were the product of staggering ignorance rather than axe-grinding ideology, and it’s easier to fill an empty vessel than to replace the contents of one that is already full.

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