President Donald Trump and King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia
Credit: Shealah Craighead/FLICKR

During the 2016 campaign, foreign policy was one of the areas in which Trump sounded different from traditional Republicans. He eschewed the whole idea of “regime change” and campaigned on the idea that the U.S. shouldn’t be inserting itself in Middle Eastern conflicts.

On the other hand, he embraced the growing movement of Islamophobia in this country, including the idea that terrorism was a natural outgrowth of the Muslim faith. That was the basis for his proposed “Muslim ban” and his hints at the idea of developing a Muslim registry.

Due to that background, many people are experiencing a bit of whip lash at his remarks in Saudi Arabia over the weekend, including things like this:

The Middle East is rich with natural beauty, vibrant cultures, and massive amounts of historic treasures. It should increasingly become one of the great global centers of commerce and opportunity…

But this untapped potential, this tremendous cause for optimism, is held at bay by bloodshed and terror. There can be no coexistence with this violence. There can be no tolerating it, no accepting it, no excusing it, and no ignoring it…

This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations.

This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life, and decent people of all religions who seek to protect it.

This is a battle between Good and Evil…

For many centuries the Middle East has been home to Christians, Muslims and Jews living side-by-side. We must practice tolerance and respect for each other once again—and make this region a place where every man and woman, no matter their faith or ethnicity, can enjoy a life of dignity and hope.

That sounds an awful lot like the kind of thing George W. Bush said after 9/11. The key for Republicans has always been where you draw that line between good and evil. That’s where Trump began to sound an awful lot like the Republican war hawks.

But no discussion of stamping out this threat would be complete without mentioning the government that gives terrorists all three—safe harbor, financial backing, and the social standing needed for recruitment. It is a regime that is responsible for so much instability in the region. I am speaking of course of Iran.

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.

Rhetoric like that will allow Senators like Cotton, Graham and McCain to jump back on the Trump train. Seeing Iran as the evil force in the Middle East puts U.S. foreign policy back on track to take sides with Sunni Muslims (primarily in the Gulf States) in their ancient battle with Shia Muslims (primarily in Iran). It ignores a fundamental reality that the editorial board of USA Today identified.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the world’s most dangerous terrorist organization, is Sunni. The same goes for al-Qaeda, the group founded by Osama bin Laden that brought down the World Trade Center on 9/11.

The bulk of the 9/11 terrorists were Saudi citizens. And the Saudi government has long supported an ultra orthodox form of Islam known as Wahhabism, which has been a kind of gateway drug to radical Islam.

To be sure, much of the reason that Sunni extremism dominates the world of terrorism is that it is the much larger of the two predominant sects. But radical Sunnis have been more aggressive than militant Shiites, such as Hezbollah, in attacking Western homelands.

Here is how Obama described the problem with the approach embraced by the war hawks:

His frustration with the Saudis informs his analysis of Middle Eastern power politics. At one point I observed to him that he is less likely than previous presidents to axiomatically side with Saudi Arabia in its dispute with its archrival, Iran. He didn’t disagree…

“An approach that said to our friends ‘You are right, Iran is the source of all problems, and we will support you in dealing with Iran’ would essentially mean that as these sectarian conflicts continue to rage and our Gulf partners, our traditional friends, do not have the ability to put out the flames on their own or decisively win on their own, and would mean that we have to start coming in and using our military power to settle scores. And that would be in the interest neither of the United States nor of the Middle East.”

In other words, this approach comes right out of what Obama called the “Washington playbook.”

There’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow. It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment. And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized responses. Where America is directly threatened, the playbook works. But the playbook can also be a trap that can lead to bad decisions.

Over the course of his presidency, Obama worked assiduously to avoid getting the U.S. tangled up in the proxy wars all over the Middle East that are fueled by this Sunni/Shia conflict. He had a different vision.

Ultimately, he envisages a new geopolitical equilibrium, one less turbulent than the current landscape of civil war, terror, and sectarian battle. “It would be profoundly in the interest of citizens throughout the region if Sunnis and Shias weren’t intent on killing each other,” he told me. “And although it would not solve the entire problem, if we were able to get Iran to operate in a responsible fashion—not funding terrorist organizations, not trying to stir up sectarian discontent in other countries, and not developing a nuclear weapon—you could see an equilibrium developing between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran in which there’s competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare.

To the extent that Trump’s speech in Saudi Arabia is a representation of his administration’s foreign policy in the Middle East, he is signaling that he is willing to join with the Sunnis in their ancient battle against the Shia in these proxy wars, and perhaps even in the ultimate battle directly with Iran. I’m sure that the war hawks are thrilled—as are countries like Saudi Arabia and Israel—that Trump is abandoning his campaign rhetoric and sounding just like any other traditional Republican.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.