Presidents Obama, Trump and the Middle East: Choice of Capitals, Messages and Audiences

May 22, 2017

President Obama arrived in Turkey in April 2009 after attending a G20 summit in London, a NATO summit in Strasbourg and an EU summit in Prague. This was his first overseas trip as President.

The following paragraph from the speech he delivered before the Turkish Grand National Assembly on April 6, 2009 reflected the purpose of the visit:

“This morning I had the great privilege of visiting the tomb of your extraordinary founder of your republic. And I was deeply impressed by this beautiful memorial to a man who did so much to shape the course of history. But it is also clear that the greatest monument to Atatürk’s life is not something that can be cast in stone and marble. His greatest legacy is Turkey’s strong, vibrant, secular democracy, and that is the work this assembly carries on today…”

The message: Turkey, with its secular democracy has set an example for the Islamic world. It is democracy’s flagship in the region. Turkey should continue it’s course, and others should follow.

Two months later, addressing the world of Islam from Cairo on June 4, 2009 President Obama said that he was seeking a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect. He called for a sustained effort to listen to one another; to respect one another; and to seek common ground. He made it clear, as he had done in Ankara, that America is not — and never will be — at war with Islam. He said that America would gladly bring every single one of its troops home from Afghanistan once the threat of violent extremism was eliminated. He said that unlike Afghanistan, Iraq was a war of choice that provoked strong differences in America and around the world. He defined America’s dual responsibility as helping Iraq forge a better future — and leaving Iraq to Iraqis. He mentioned that the Palestinian people — Muslims and Christians — have suffered in pursuit of a homeland and that the only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security.

While saying that no system of government can or should be imposed by one nation upon any other he stressed his commitment to governments that reflect the will of the people. He underlined the importance of free speech; confidence in the rule of law, equal administration of justice and transparency.

He underlined the that freedom of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together.  He said that richness of religious diversity must be upheld.  And, predicting perhaps the sectarian wars which were to engulf the Middle East a few years later, he mentioned a disturbing tendency, among some Muslims to measure one’s own faith by the rejection of somebody else’s faith. He called for the closing of fault lines among Muslims.

And finally, on September 20, 2016 President Obama addressed the UN General Assembly for the last time. He dwelt at length on the root causes of the uncertainty, unease and strife which fill societies and stated the following specifically on the Middle East:

“… Across vast swaths of the Middle East, basic security, basic order has broken down.  We see too many governments muzzling journalists, and quashing dissent, and censoring the flow of information.  Terrorist networks use social media to prey upon the minds of our youth, endangering open societies and spurring anger against innocent immigrants and Muslims…

“… In countries held together by borders drawn by colonial powers, with ethnic enclaves and tribal divisions, politics and elections can sometimes appear to be a zero-sum game.  And so, given the difficulty in forging true democracy in the face of these pressures, it’s no surprise that some argue the future favors the strongman, a top-down model, rather than strong, democratic institutions…

“… We see this mindset in too many parts of the Middle East.  There, so much of the collapse in order has been fueled because leaders sought legitimacy not because of policies or programs but by resorting to persecuting political opposition, or demonizing other religious sects, by narrowing the public space to the mosque, where in too many places perversions of a great faith were tolerated.  These forces built up for years, and are now at work helping to fuel both Syria’s tragic civil war and the mindless, medieval menace of ISIL.

“The mindset of sectarianism, and extremism, and bloodletting, and retribution that has been taking place will not be quickly reversed. And if we are honest, we understand that no external power is going to be able to force different religious communities or ethnic communities to co-exist for long.  But I do believe we have to be honest about the nature of these conflicts, and our international community must continue to work with those who seek to build rather than to destroy…

“… And what is true in the Middle East is true for all of us.  Surely, religious traditions can be honored and upheld while teaching young people science and math, rather than intolerance. Surely, we can sustain our unique traditions while giving women their full and rightful role in the politics and economics of a nation…”

He also said that the collapse of colonialism and communism has allowed more people than ever before to live with the freedom to choose their leaders; that despite the real and troubling areas where freedom appears in retreat, the fact remains that the number of democracies around the world has nearly doubled in the last 25 years. Sadly, all of that has happened beyond the Middle East.

President Obama had an increasingly uneasy relationship with both Israel and Saudi Arabia and its Gulf partners, where he was seen as being concerned less with traditional alliances than concluding the Iran nuclear deal. And towards the end of his second term he gave the impression of believing that the Kingdom was not doing enough to fight radical ideologies, to engage in reform and that PM Netanyahu had no intention of embracing the two-state-vision. So, it is not surprising that many Middle East leaders were happy to see him go and embrace his successor as a better partner.

This morning, President Trump completed his visit to Saudi Arabia and left for Israel on his first trip abroad which was characterized as an initiative to unite the faiths of the world and reassure allies that America remains engaged. The intention may have been a noble one, the objective ambitious, but the timing, with Washington in disarray, was rather unfortunate. The trip, no doubt, was also perceived as a way of diverting attention from the problems confronting the Trump White House, but internal political crises and foreign policy achievements seldom go hand in hand.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia where the President was offered the most lavish welcome and endless praise is the birthplace of Islam and home to its holiest shrines. The title held by the Kings is “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques”. But beyond that, does the Kingdom represent Muslims’ aspiration to democracy? Does it represent economic and social progress, separation of powers, rule of law, respect for fundamental human rights and freedoms, respect for gender equality, freedom of speech? Not exactly, but had he chosen to Mr. Obama’s criteria, President Trump would probably have ended up going nowhere in the region at this particular juncture. So, this visit was more about seeking a united front against ISIS, reiterating American support for Saudi Arabia, breathing new energy into an estranged alliance, sending messages to Teheran and signing billions and billions worth of business deals including arms sales than enlightened debate about the reasons underlying Middle East turmoil, the root causes of peoples’ discontent and ways of meeting their expectations.

The Kingdom also happens to be the seat of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the second largest inter-governmental organization after the United Nations with a membership of 57 states spread over four continents. OIC’s official website, reflecting its Charter, says that it is the collective voice of the Muslim world; that it endeavors to safeguard and protect the interests of the Muslim world in the spirit of promoting international peace and harmony among various people of the world. Yet, the OIC has remained totally invisible in the face of the sectarian strife which has gripped the broad Middle East in recent years.

Saudi Arabia, stuck with the war in Yemen and unable to confront Iran on its own should be extremely happy with the opportunity to re-energize its partnership with Washington and enhance its claim to Muslim world’s spiritual if not political leadership. In view of the uncertainties regarding the Trump White House, however, it remains to be seen whether the investment would yield the expected long-term political returns.

The White House press statement of May 4, 2017 on Mr. Trump’s visit read: “President Trump has accepted the invitation of King Salman bin Abd Al-Aziz, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, to visit the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia later this month. The visit will reaffirm the strong partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia and allow the leaders to discuss issues of strategic concern, including efforts to defeat terrorist groups and discredit radical ideologies.

“President Trump has also accepted the invitation of President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to visit Israel, where he will further strengthen the United States-Israel partnership.  The leaders will discuss a range of regional issues, including the need to counter the threats posed by Iran and its proxies, and by ISIS and other terrorist groups…” 

It was interesting that the statement referred to Iran not in the context of the visit to Saudi Arabia but to Israel. Regardless, both Israel and Saudi Arabia must have been delighted with the reference to the threats posed by Teheran although Iran and ISIS remain archenemies. The White House would have been wiser not to refer to Iran at all only two weeks ahead of the country’s presidential election. And, as President Rouhani’s decisive election victory unmistakably shows, the people of Iran support political reform and the Iran nuclear deal proving the wisdom of the Mr. Obama’s policy of engagement. Indeed, the negotiation process for the P5+1-Iran agreement was launched by a telephone call between Presidents Obama and Rouhani on September 27, 2013 the highest-level contact between the two countries in three decades and a sign that they were serious about reaching a pact on Tehran’s nuclear program. Yet, all Secretary of State Tillerson could say in a written statement in Riyadh, upon President Rouhani’s election was that Mr. Rouhani should now start to begin a process of dismantling Iran’s network of terrorism, dismantling its financing of the terrorist network, put an end to Iran’s ballistic missile testing and restore the rights of Iranians to freedom of speech, to freedom of organization, so that Iranians can live the life that they deserve. And, during their joint press conference both Secretary Tillerson Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir again referred to the threats posed by Iran, the latter in much greater detail. But at least Mr. Tillerson, responding to a question, was able to say “At this point, I have no plans to call my counterpart in Iran, although, in all likelihood, we will talk at the right time.”

In Riyadh, President Trump, in addition to bilateral meetings, addressed leaders from Muslim nations at the Arab-Islamic-American summit, a display of Kingdom’s ability to bring them all to Riyadh. Actually, this could have been simply an OIC-US summit but that would have required Iran’s presence, also an OIC member. President remarks, though public, targeted the leaders more than the peoples. He sought to make up for his campaign remarks regarding Islam and the executive orders which were called refugee bans. Before the visit, national security adviser McMaster had told the press that Mr. Trump “will deliver an inspiring but direct speech on the need to confront radical ideology and President’s hopes for a peaceful vision of Islam to dominate across the world.”

In this major address, President Trump said that America will not seek to impose its way of life on others, but to outstretch its hands in the spirit of cooperation and trust; that he was not there to lecture, to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship. Instead, he said, he was there to offer partnership – based on shared interests and values – to pursue a better future for all. He said: “Here at this summit we will discuss many interests we share together. But above all we must be united in pursuing the one goal that transcends every other consideration. That goal is to meet history’s great test—to conquer extremism and vanquish the forces of terrorism.”

He announced with great satisfaction that historic agreements had been signed with the Kingdom investing almost $400 billion in the two countries and thus help create many thousands of jobs. He added that this landmark agreement includes a $110 billion Saudi-funded defense purchase which will help the Saudi military to take a greater role in security operations.

Referring to the “Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology” he said that this center represents a clear declaration that Muslim-majority countries must take the lead in combatting radicalization. He defined America’s goal as a coalition of nations who share the aim of stamping out extremism. He underlined that few nations have been spared the violent reach of terrorism and the ideology that drives it. He added that in sheer numbers, the deadliest toll has been exacted on the innocent people of Arab, Muslim and Middle Eastern nations. He said that there can be no coexistence with this violence; no tolerating it, no accepting it, no excusing it, and no ignoring it. Referring to ISIS atrocities he said that every time a terrorist murders an innocent person, and falsely invokes the name of God, it should be an insult to every person of faith. He described the battle against terrorism as a battle between Good and Evil. While reiterating America’s readiness to stand with Muslim countries in pursuit of shared interests and common security he said that the nations of the Middle East cannot wait for American power to crush this enemy for them. He stated that this was a choice between two futures – a choice America cannot make for them. A better future he added is only possible if Muslim nations drove out the terrorists and extremists. “That means” he said “confronting the crisis of Islamic extremism and the Islamists and Islamic terror of all kinds.”

He referred to the many centuries when the Middle East had been home to Christians, Muslims and Jews living side-by-side. He advocated practicing tolerance and respect for one another once again to make this region a place where every man and woman, no matter their faith or ethnicity, can enjoy a life of dignity and hope. Then, after a long tirade calling for Iran’s isolation, he concluded by saying that the birthplace of civilization was waiting to begin a new renaissance.

All in all, the speech represented a break from his controversial campaign remarks on Islam. It was not combative yet drew attention to the difficult choices facing Muslim leaders. Only a day after the Iranians had re-elected President Rouhani as a leader who represented their hopes for reform and when regional peace and reconciliation was high on his agenda, the President could have avoided his very strongly-worded criticism of Iran. Because, such a diversion from the policy followed by his predecessor is bound to raise questions about the continuity of America’s foreign policy.

Looking at the visit, the pomp, the extravaganza, the luxury and the words of mutual commitment exchanged between the leaders of world’s leading power and Saudi Arabia, what can the leaders of other Muslim nations possibly think or feel? Should they be happy that their internal political shortcomings may no longer be such a big issue? Should they look at the US-Saudi relationship with envy, even jealousy perhaps? Or, should they start thinking about putting their house in order and see what they can offer their peoples and the world?

For many Muslim countries, seeking answers to such questions may be complicated. For Turkey, it is simple: Our giving final proof of being a full-fledged democracy will give us a unique international status that no other regional country can easily achieve through other means, no matter what.



About Ali Tuygan

Ali Tuygan is a graduate of the Faculty of Political Sciences of Ankara University. He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in January 1967. Between various positions in Ankara, he served at the Turkish Embassy in Brussels, NATO International Staff, Turkish Embassies in Washington and Baghdad, and the Turkish Delegation to NATO. From 1986 to 1989 he was the Principal Private Secretary to the President of the Republic. He then served as ambassador to Ottawa, Riyadh, and Athens. In 1997 he was honored with a decoration by the Italian President. Between these assignments abroad he served twice as Deputy Undersecretary for Political Affairs. In 2004 he was appointed Undersecretary where he remained until the end of 2006 before going to his last foreign assignment as Ambassador to UNESCO. He retired in 2009. In April 2013 he published a book entitled “Gönüllü Diplomat, Dışişlerinde Kırk Yıl” (“Diplomat by Choice, Forty Years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs”) in which he elaborated on the diplomatic profession and the main issues on the global agenda. He has published articles in Turkish periodicals and newspapers.
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