President Donald Trump’s speech at the historic Riyadh summit of 50 Sunni Muslim states called for “a coalition of nations who share the aim of stamping out extremism and providing our children a hopeful future that does honor to God.” This is not the same thing as calling for a Reformation within Islam. While he did praise a trend towards improved conditions, he did so within the framework of the policies proposed by the governments whose leaders he was addressing. For example, saying “Saudi Arabia’s Vision for 2030 is an important and encouraging statement of tolerance, respect, empowering women, and economic development.” He used religious references to convey a common regard for the role of faith in both American and Arab society. The jihadists of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS) use Islamic theology to justify their actions and to recruit fighters, but that does mean that those who would destroy these violent movements have to abandon their own faith; which is good because they are not going to do that.
President Trump’s appeal was more pragmatic and appealed to the Arab leaders own instinct for self-preservation. The jihadists are revolutionaries, bent on overthrowing the governments of the Middle East. Though they hate the decadent and immoral Western values they fear will infect their societies, their attacks in America and Europe are part of their strategy to seize power at home.
On September 11, 2001, Ayman al-Zawahiri was second in command of al-Qaeda. He had persuaded his boss, Osama bin Laden, that uprisings could not succeed as long as Muslim leaders were backed by the strength of the United States. America had to be forced to withdraw to render vulnerable the existing political order. Spectacular attacks would terrorize the public into demanding that Washington “cut and run” from its overseas commitments. Zawahiri, who had once been a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, had his attempt to foment revolution crushed by the Hosni Mubarak regime. Most of the 9/11 terrorists were Saudis who wanted to overthrow the monarchy and put Bin Laden in power; the way the Shah of Iran had been toppled.
There are three fronts in the current war: ISIS, internal security and Iran. The most attention has gone to the battle against the ISIS Caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Even President Barack Obama was willing to take military action against ISIS, though it was his desire to cut and run from Iraq in 2011 that opened the door for ISIS to fill the vacuum. Obama was not, however willing to fight on the other two fronts which pose the greater long run threats.
Since the aim of the jihadists is to overthrow the governments with which the U.S. is aligned, internal security is a high priority. Counterterrorism means counterrevolution. Yet, the Obama administration constantly criticized, and in some cases punished, coalition partners for putting down domestic insurrection. Consider these passages from the State Department’s 2016 Human Rights report on Egypt, an absolutely crucial ally.
There were continued reports of suspected terrorists and other suspected criminals killed during security raids conducted by police. The Interior Ministry claimed police officers fired at suspects only when suspects fired first. Rights groups claimed these shootings might have amounted to extrajudicial killings.
Rights groups and international media reported the armed forces used indiscriminate force during military operations that targeted widespread terrorist activity in the northern Sinai Peninsula, resulting in killings of civilians and destruction of property, particularly along the border with Gaza, where there was extensive smuggling of weapons and other equipment to terrorist groups.
Though the report acknowledges “Terrorist groups, including Da’esh [ISIS] Sinai Province (formerly known as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis) and Ajnad Misr, among others, conducted deadly attacks on government, civilian, and security targets throughout the country, including schools, places of worship, and public transportation” the bulk of the long report is devoted to undermining the effort to combat these attacks. The claims of “rights groups” and the “media” are given credence without any mention of the radical agendas of these sources. It is safe to assume that these sources do not have the security of Egypt or the prosecution of the war against terrorism as their priority.
Though all of our allies n the region were subject to attack for “human rights” violations (even Jordan and Israel), Egypt has been singled out because its pro-Western government was actually overthrown in 2011 during the so-called “Arab Spring.” President Mubarak, who had kept the 1979 peace agreement with Israel, while combating the extremists, was replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood; a disastrous strategic change which President Obama was willing to accept (or even promote). The revolutionary regime, elected in a misbegotten “democratic” process, proved intolerable to the Egyptian people who overwhelmingly backed a military coup in 2013. Instead of celebrating this fortunate turn of events; President Obama cut military aid to the new government. Obama did finally meet with Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, the general who had led the coup, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in 2014, but only after el-Sissi had resigned his commission and been elected president earlier in the year. Obama would not invite him to Washington.
In contrast, President Trump met with the Egyptian leader in the White House on April 3, declaring, “I just want to let everybody know, in case there was any doubt, that we are very much behind President al-Sissi. He’s done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation. We are very much behind Egypt and the people of Egypt.” He was criticized from the Left by groups like Human Rights Watch. “Inviting al-Sissi for an official visit to Washington as tens of thousands of Egyptians rot in jail and when torture is again the order of the day is a strange way to build a stable strategic relationship,” said Sarah Margon, the group’s Washington director. It is, of course, not strange at all if one is serious about winning the war against brutal and ruthless enemies.
The third front is Iran. President Trump told the Riyadh summit, “From Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen, Iran funds, arms, and trains terrorists, militias, and other extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos across the region. For decades, Iran has fueled the fires of sectarian conflict and terror. It is a government that speaks openly of mass murder, vowing the destruction of Israel, death to America, and ruin for many leaders and nations in this room.” Former Secretary of State John Kerry made this connection in regard to the Syrian Civil War, noting that it was President Bashir al-Assad’s despotism against the majority Sunni population that had provoked the violent uprising that allowed ISIS and other extremists to assume the role of Sunni heroes. Shiite Iran’s intervention in Syria has saved Assad, but further provoked Sunni resistance. As much as the Sunni extremists hate the cultural rot emanating from a dying Western civilization, it is Shiite expansionism that poses the true existential threat.
Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud agreed with President Trump, telling the summit “The Iranian regime has been the spearhead of global terrorism” and citing the 1979 Iranian revolutions as the start of sectarian violence. So did Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who told Trump, “I want you to know how much we appreciate the change in American policy on Iran…. you have noted so succinctly that common dangers are turning former enemies into partners.” The alignment of Israel and the Sunni Arabs goes back to the George W. Bush administration, but President Obama never understood it. He offered carrots to the Tehran regime just when the Shia theocrats needed to mobilize more resources to expand into Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
The offer of $110 billion in new arms to Riyadh is important. It has, however, been condemned from the same corners as mentioned earlier. Amnesty International claims, “There is damning evidence that war crimes have been committed by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition. The United States must immediately halt all arms transfers to members of the coalition for use in Yemen.” This view has been seconded by Medea Benjamin, founder of the notorious “antiwar” (actually anti-America) CODE PINK, who is always ready to defend any enemy of the U.S. She is particularly concerned about a coalition attack to recapture the port of Hodeidah, a stronghold of the Iran-backed Houthi insurgents. Her concern is supposedly civilian casualties from the war; but neglects to mention the war started when Houthi militia seized the capital in 2014. This is the standard liberal approach: wars are not started by aggression but by those who oppose aggression. The Saudis should “end the war” by letting the Houthi win. President Trump, however, will not find such arguments to be persuasive. He focus is on our side winning.
An active U.S. partner in the Sunni-Israeli alignment is a necessary response to Iran. A weak, reluctant U.S. fosters anti-Western propaganda that helps the extremists recruit and has forced Sunni states to fund radical groups in Syria like Al-Nusra because they are the ones willing to fight. What is needed is the application of the “awakening” strategy used in Iraq during the Bush administration to the entire region. The U.S. was able to enlist local Sunnis to drive out al-Qaeda by proving that Americans were “the strongest tribe” and could do a better job of protecting the Sunni community from their Shiite enemies. The strategy collapsed when Obama broke that promise. President Trump has renewed it; the best outcome of his trip to the Middle East.