Some of my speechwriting friends may recall my analysis of the intellectually and technically unsatisfactory speech by President Obama in Cairo.
Now we have the first major overseas speech given by President Trump, delivered in Saudi Arabia at the heart of the ‘Islamic World’. How did he do?
First and foremost, this speech is 3402 words long. The Obama speech in 2009 had a sprawling 6050 words – far too many.
The Obama speech started horribly:
I’m also proud to carry with me the goodwill of the American people, and a greeting of peace from Muslim communities in my country: Assalaamu alaykum (Applause.)
What? Why is the President of the United States carrying a greeting of peace from US Muslim communities? What about Christian or Buddhist or indeed atheist communities? What does this opening say to non-Muslims in the USA and in the Middle East alike?
President Trump begins with a different tone, after gushing words of thanks to his hosts:
I stand before you as a representative of the American People, to deliver a message of friendship and hope. That is why I chose to make my first foreign visit a trip to the heart of the Muslim world, to the nation that serves as custodian of the two holiest sites in the Islamic Faith…
Our vision is one of peace, security, and prosperity—in this region, and in the world. Our goal is 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 gets right to the nub of the Trump approach: deals. Deals between states that agree to trade and work against terrorism.
Later today, we will make history again with the opening of a new Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology – located right here, in this central part of the Islamic World. This groundbreaking new center represents a clear declaration that Muslim-majority countries must take the lead in combatting radicalization, and I want to express our gratitude to King Salman for this strong demonstration of leadership.
An important policy idea: ‘Muslim-majority’ countries have the lead role in tackling Muslim ‘radicalization’. President Trump points out the Arab, Muslim and Middle Eastern nations themselves have borne the worst consequences of terrorism:
We now face a humanitarian and security disaster in this region that is spreading across the planet. It is a tragedy of epic proportions. No description of the suffering and depravity can begin to capture its full measure.
The true toll of ISIS, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, and so many others, must be counted not only in the number of dead. It must also be counted in generations of vanished dreams.
Note that the President (to the dismay of some of his supporters) does not use the phrase ‘Islamist terrorism’ or specifically link terrorism to Islam. But he places the source of the problem squarely in the Middle East and lists leading Islamist organisations responsible for spreading violence. It is especially striking that in this speech he uses the words ‘terrorism/terrorist/terrorists’ a full 31 times. President Obama’s speech? Not once.
President Trump like President Obama waxes lyrical on wonders of the Arab world:
Egypt was a thriving center of learning and achievement thousands of years before other parts of the world. The wonders of Giza, Luxor and Alexandria are proud monuments to that ancient heritage … And the United Arab Emirates has reached incredible heights with glass and steel, and turned earth and water into spectacular works of art.
I never like this sort of thing: it somehow sounds condescending. Plus what exactly has gone wrong across the region to leave it underperforming on so many levels? Not easy to tackle this head-on when addressing the region’s own leaders, but still.
The potential of this region has never been greater. 65 percent of its population is under the age of 30. Like all young men and women, they seek great futures to build, great national projects to join, and a place for their families to call home.
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 …
When we see the scenes of destruction in the wake of terror, we see no signs that those murdered were Jewish or Christian, Shia or Sunni … we see only that they were Children of God whose deaths are an insult to all that is holy.
Powerful, no-nonsense passages that lead to the core message:
The nations of the Middle East cannot wait for American power to crush this enemy for them. The nations of the Middle East will have to decide what kind of future they want for themselves, for their countries, and for their children.
It is a choice between two futures – and it is a choice America CANNOT make for you. A better future is only possible if your nations drive out the terrorists and extremists.
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.
It’s hard to imagine anything more different in tone and substance from the long-winded didactic tone of President Obama. President Trump presses again on the Trump Doctrine, that Muslim-majority states own the lead in combatting extremism:
We are adopting a Principled Realism, rooted in common values and shared interests … We must seek partners, not perfection.
… Muslim nations must be willing to take on the burden, if we are going to defeat terrorism and send its wicked ideology into oblivion.
… I am proud to announce that the nations here today will be signing an agreement to prevent the financing of terrorism, called the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center – co-chaired by the United States and Saudi Arabia, and joined by every member of the Gulf Cooperation Council. It is another historic step in a day that will be long remembered.
What if anything such an initiative will achieve is impossible to predict. But it does get US officials deep in and among their Arab counterparts, pressing them to crack down hard on murky funding pipelines. President Trump links this to the core ideological battle:
Religious leaders must make this absolutely clear: Barbarism will deliver you no glory – piety to evil will bring you no dignity. If you choose the path of terror, your life will be empty, your life will be brief, and YOUR SOUL WILL BE CONDEMNED.
President Obama used his Cairo speech to say some warm words about Israel. President Trump zooms past that whole Israel/Palestine issue, saying only that he is soon to meet Israeli and Palestinian leaders to urge peace.
He leaves the concluding part of his speech for a full-frontal attack on Iran:
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.
Until the Iranian regime is willing to be a partner for peace, all nations of conscience must work together to isolate Iran, deny it funding for terrorism, and pray for the day when the Iranian people have the just and righteous government they deserve.
Plenty of commentators have pointed out the contradiction in President Trump laying into Iran in Saudi Arabia with its own fair share of extremists and human rights horrors, just when Iran has had some sort of popular election that (in Iranian terms) voted for ‘moderation’.
President Trump concludes with his core point: the personal responsibility of Arab leaders there in the room to lift their game, as emphasised even on the White House website by CAPITAL LETTERS:
We in this room are the leaders of our peoples. They look to us for answers, and for action … I ask you to join me, to join together, to work together, and to FIGHT together— BECAUSE UNITED, WE WILL NOT FAIL.
* * *
Two other noteworthy points.
First, President Obama’s speech had 13 references to women, but drifted into some unhappy rambling:
I do not believe that women must make the same choices as men in order to be equal, and I respect those women who choose to live their lives in traditional roles. But it should be their choice.
That carefully misses the point: what if unsubtle social/religious pressures in Islam deny women a free choice? President Trump by contrast briefly mentions empowering women in the improbable context of Saudi Arabia’s Vison for 2030.
Second, remember Musty Needy Speeches? President Obama’s Cairo speech had a grim 43 uses of must/need, a mark of both limp speechwriting and flabby thought. President Trump has 15: still too many, but occurring rather less frequently.
* * *
President Trump gave a strong, effective speech in Saudi Arabia that combined important new US policy emphases and hard-headed ‘principled’ realism in a way that was perhaps even flattering for the leaders there with him. His call to the region’s Islamic religious leaders to reject terrorism on the basis of doctrine was impressively unqualified.
All in all, this speech had a sense of conveying President Trump’s own apparent strengths: restless energy and untrammeled self-confident pragmatism. After the long unhappy years of Presidents Bush and Obama, who knows? Maybe this completely different direct deal-based style of doing things can make a positive difference in this divided, failing Middle East region.