Trump Panders to the Saudi Royals

President Trump’s speech to the Islamic world amounted to a pander to his regal Saudi hosts and a blindness toward the realities of Mideast terrorism, explains ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

The bar for Donald Trump’s speech in Riyadh had been set so low that it was scraping the sand. How much could be expected from a notorious exploiter of Islamophobia speaking to a gathering of leaders of majority Muslim countries? Getting through the experience without causing major new damage should perhaps be considered a success. Perhaps Trump and his speechwriters were wise not to attempt anything more. The Hippocratic principle applies: first do no (more) harm.

President Trump speaks at the Arab-American summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on May 21, 2017. (Screenshot from

Most Muslims hearing the speech, especially the more knowledgeable ones who have followed Trump’s candidacy and presidency, know his qualities, know he is capable of delivering a scripted speech without falling on his face, and are unlikely to have had the speech change any of their perceptions of Trump, his administration, or the United States. They will not be surprised, once Trump is back in Washington, to hear of more exploitation of Islamophobia regarding travel bans or something else.

Trump’s speech evidently was crafted to appeal to a very narrow audience: the Saudi regime, along with some similar ruling brethren in places such as the United Arab Emirates, while coloring the appeal with some distinctively Trumpian touches.

The kind of compliments that had pride of place in the speech — up near the front, along with Trump’s usual and inevitable assertions about how back home he had “created almost a million new jobs” and “lifted the burdens on American industry” — focused on glitz: the “grandeur” of the conference hall, the Saudis’ “soaring achievements in architecture,” and the UAE’s having reached “incredible heights with glass and steel.”

A Narrow Appeal

These are not the sorts of observations likely to have much resonance with the man in the street in Riyadh, let alone the streets of countless other majority Muslim cities. The narrowness of the appeal in the speech exacerbated the narrowness in the selection of Saudi Arabia as the place for a first presidential visit that was supposedly representative of an entire religion. Certainly there will be little positive resonance among the whole Shia branch of Islam.

President Trump takes part in ceremony for signing agreement on weapons sales in Saudi Arabia, May 20, 2017. Saudi King Salman sits on the right. (Screen shot from

Speaking of Shia, the speech had, of course, the obligatory excoriation of Iran. That passage reads like the response to a “cue the anti-Iran invective” direction given to the speechwriters; it is awkwardly divorced from the context of both the surrounding parts of the speech itself and what has been transpiring in the real world. After talking about violent extremism that is mostly the extremist Sunni variety spearheaded by ISIS, the anti-Iran passage asserts that Iran is “the government” that gives “terrorists” everything they need to do their evil deeds, assertions oblivious to how Iran is on the opposite side from ISIS and Al Qaeda throughout the region, including Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.

In the same passage, Trump said that “until the Iranian regime is willing to be a partner for peace, all nations of conscience must work together to isolate it.” There was no mention anywhere in the speech of the laboriously negotiated multilateral agreement that limits Iran’s nuclear program. Participation in that negotiation doesn’t count as willingness to be a partner for peace? The nuclear program was the one thing Iran was doing that, before negotiation of the agreement, the anti-Iran rhetoricians were most vehement about highlighting as a supposed threat to peace.

Trump also said everyone should “pray for the day when the Iranian people have the just and righteous government they so richly deserve” while saying nothing that suggested any awareness or acknowledgement of how, just two days earlier, Iranians had voted in a presidential election, re-elected the reformist candidate, and rejected by a landslide margin the leading hardline candidate. Trump was exhibiting a kind of diplomatic autism that takes no heed of the sentiments, objectives, and even actions of the other party.

Music to Saudi Ears

All this, especially the anti-Iran part, was music to the ears of the Saudi rulers. But besides acting like a guest who is pleasing to the hosts, what else did this speech accomplish? What else, that is, besides avoiding any new Trumpian disasters? A major speech by a U.S. president to foreign audiences should do more than suck up to the rulers of whatever is the speech’s venue.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani celebrates the completion of an interim deal on Iran’s nuclear program on Nov. 24, 2013, by kissing the head of the daughter of an assassinated Iranian nuclear engineer. (Iranian government photo)

The ideal speech should deftly convey messages to the multiple audiences who will be listening, to address questions that are meaningful and important to each of the audiences in a way that indicates understanding of their problems, and to use persuasion to move those audiences in a direction conducive to U.S. interests and international peace and security and in which they would not otherwise have moved, or moved as much.

The most useful lines in Trump’s speech acknowledged that Muslims are the most numerous victims of terrorism, noted the need for religious leaders to counter extremist exploitation of their religions, and appealed for religious tolerance.  But by throwing himself so fully into the arms of the Saudi regime, it is hard to identify how the speech is likely to move the needle in a positive direction as far as the behavior of either that regime or other regimes is concerned.

The speech conveyed a very crude and simplistic explanation of terrorism and political violence in the Middle East. As Trump describes it, terrorism is all just a matter of good versus evil. And his exhortation to his audience of rulers was: “A better future is only possible if your nations drive out the terrorists and drive out the 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.”

Ignoring Saudi Complicity

There was barely any hint of awareness about political, economic, and social conditions that have much to do with how much terrorism there will be in the years ahead and how many drivable terrorists there will be in the first place. But it is in affecting those conditions that regimes such as the Saudi regime could do the most good. They don’t need exhortations about “driving out.” The Saudis used to have a policy of driving extremists out of the kingdom, which was just a way of sloughing the problem off on someone else and did nothing to solve the problem.

The late Osama bin Laden, a Saudi militant whose jihad in the 1980s against Soviet troops in Afghanistan was supported by the Saudi government.

The speech’s approach to interstate relations was similarly crude and similarly unlikely to shape behavior in a favorable direction. The Saudis and other Gulf Arab regimes don’t need any encouragement to be staunchly anti-Iran. What is needed, in the interests of regional peace and security and thus in U.S. interests, is greater efforts at reconciling competing interests in nonviolent ways.

If we or they do not like something Iran is doing and that we regard as irregular and illegitimate, then it behooves us and our partners, as well as the Iranians, to promote peaceful, legitimate diplomacy as a means of reconciliation — rather than exhortations that promote more hostility and isolation.

Trump got through his speech without adding to self-inflicted damage of the sort that awaits him back in Washington. But the speech does more to divide than to unite, and it does more to stoke conflict in the Middle East than to reduce it.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is author most recently of Why America Misunderstands the World. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.) .

19 comments for “Trump Panders to the Saudi Royals

  1. Peter Robertson
    May 22, 2017 at 20:22

    Mr Parry,

    This photo of “Osama Bin Laden” is such an obvious fake it’s embarassing.

    • Joe Tedesky
      May 22, 2017 at 23:19

      I think the fake Osama photos are hilarious in their own realm of how phony this whole 911 thing actually is. Although I see your point for authenticity, the which is Osama picture gallery is a story all of it’s own. Don’t be offended with my comment here, because in someways I’m agreeing with you, but in another way I’m elbowing your ribs over the humor of it all….Joe

  2. susan sunflower
    May 22, 2017 at 14:16

    I’m left wondering how close we are to a “declaration of war” on Iran via a USA/KSA/GCC/Israel coalition (with the usual NATO poodles humping Trump’s leg to be allowed to join in the fun)

    • susan sunflower
      May 22, 2017 at 14:23

      seriously, someone should start an international go-fund-me to buy Iran a “nuclear deterrent” (if she doesn’t get one sooner rather than later by unconventional means) … worked for Israel … (I periodically suspect that quite a number of countries have secret limited nuclear arsenals to be unfurled (like a flag) if necessary consequences be damned.

      • Anon
        May 23, 2017 at 12:05

        Yes, it would be a patriotic act of stabilization to proliferate nuclear weapons as deterrents to US aggression.

        • susan sunflower
          May 24, 2017 at 00:20

          I feel so badly for the kids in particular — the nuclear deal was supposed to ease tensions. I grew up as part of the duck and cover drill generation (it was only a few years, but it was haunting, particularly since we kids were told we were in charge of shepherding and instructing adults — in the event of attack — because they didn’t have monthly drills).

          Another one of Obama’s empty signature achievements … such as it was … however briefly.

  3. john wilson
    May 22, 2017 at 11:38

    Trump’s speech being more or less ok is irrelevant. He’s already made disparaging remarks about Muslims so the cats out of the bag. The Saudis didn’t invite him there to give speeches, they had him there to give them lots of shiny new guns. They in return would spend money on Trumps American infrastructure initiative. The only people who seem to be obsessed with what Trump has to say are the Americans themselves. For the rest of the world its not what he says that concerns them, its what he does that matters.

  4. Joe Tedesky
    May 22, 2017 at 10:27

    With all the news coverage there has been I didn’t notice any reporting of how the Saudi royals demolished with Saudi led troops and bulldozers the town of Awamiyah. The people of Awamiyah are guilty for taking to the streets with their protest appealing to the Saudi royals for much needed reform.

    I would also urge you readers to go to and read what Patrick Cockburn has to say in regard to Trump’s Saudi visit.

    MAY 22, 2017
    Trump’s Extravagant Saudi Trip Distracts from His Crisis at Home

    If a lot of this fighting in the Middle East is attributed to Sunni verses Shia, then won’t that mean that this is a Middle East religious war? If it is a religious war, then ask yourself why is the U.S. apart of it.

    Also considering that 15 of the 19 911 hijackers were Saudi Wahabi, then why are we going after Shia people? Strange that we are allied with the very people we are suppose to be going after to seek somekind of revenge for what they did to our nation on 911.

    Nowhere does any of this American involvement make sense, that is unless you believe that all Muslims are the same, and all Muslims are terrorist who want to inforce Sharia law. If you are of that group who believe that all Muslims are terrorist, then I will suggest you start doing some reading and research and learn something, because if you don’t you will be on the side of history who will have brought this world to a brutal end.

    • john wilson
      May 22, 2017 at 11:42

      Actually Jo, there was quite a good piece about this appalling attack on Awamiyah shown on RT a few days ago.

      • Joe Tedesky
        May 22, 2017 at 14:54

        I should be more specific John, to whom I’m addressing as the media. RT in fact is considered enemy propaganda by the media outlets I am referring too. Such as the New York Times, WaPo, CNN, MSNBC, and Huffington Post, etc., these are the MSM hacks who no one can rely on.

    • Gregory Herr
      May 22, 2017 at 17:43

      Religious sectarianism was not a problem in Iraq before it was invaded and destroyed, before sectarian division was deliberately stoked by U.S. subterfuge. Syrian society is remarkably diverse in terms of religion and religious tolerance. In fact, tolerance isn’t a word that does justice to the peaceable Syrian people who actually embrace their diversity. The Syrian Arab Army is comprised mostly of Sunni, yet it is the Sunni Wahhabi who war with the Army. A religious war did not break out in the Middle East…the Americans came and set about destroying the place. We have killed many Sunni and many Shia…that doesn’t make a difference to us. Iran is a target, just like Syria, because they don’t take marching orders from Washington and because Israel wants free reign in the Golan Heights (replete with resources). Israel and Sam also don’t like Syria and Iran standing up for the Palestians and for their own way of life. Their friendship with Russia and Iran’s resources also come into play.
      Terrorist factions going back to the Muslim Brotherhood (and including the patsies of 9/11 and current iterations) are partly creations and mostly tools of Western “intelligence”. They are enemies of civilization, but you have to ask yourself, “who else are enemies of civilization?” before coming to a conclusion as to who is on what side.

      • Gregory Herr
        May 22, 2017 at 17:50

        Joe, I know you are playing devil’s advocate and am not addressing this to you as a rebuke. You stand with civilization and I am grateful for what you do. Just giving my own straight answers.

        • Joe Tedesky
          May 22, 2017 at 20:39

          Gregory I actually believe the terrorist are mercenaries funded by our sides allies, and friends, and for sure funded by princes. I just wish at least there were but a couple to a few in our media who might at least acknowledge that this terrorism thing, isn’t what it’s all cracked up to be. The vast amount of the public has never even heard of the Brookings Institute let alone read a Brookings report. America is nothing more, but a war machine for hire….it’s that bad.

          • Gregory Herr
            May 22, 2017 at 21:24

            It’s that bad and worse. CIA and special forces involved in training, air support for positioning, weapons smuggling, State Dept. funding for White Helmets, promotion of false flag and other blatant propaganda and deceit against Syrian government, including complete falsification of the Aleppo siege, failure to “recognize” terrorist (“rebel”) atrocities against Syrian civilians, and so on…
            And what of the destruction of Mosul, the widespread killing of civilians through brutal air attacks for the supposed purpose of freeing it from a terror group that we allowed to flourish in the first place? Yes, it’s that bad….humane civilizational values vs. barbarism.

          • Joe Tedesky
            May 22, 2017 at 23:13

            Wow, you have done your homework on this subject Gregory, and it shows. I read your comments always. Comments like yours, are what got me reading comments in the first place.

            This covert stuff goes back along ways as you know, but the deception and false news stories are always, no matter what the decade, always something to make your head spin. I first noticed the power of the media back when I was in the Navy, and would return from a cruise to find out how much the citizenry was under the wrong impression of the actual facts. The difference between what the outside world knew, against what the average American knew, were two different things.

            Thanks for corresponding with me I value your opinion….Joe

    • Sam F
      May 23, 2017 at 12:03

      Yes, the US is directly involved in religious wars, an anti-constitutional use of power, and without even the motive of national interest. These wars are entirely the result of corrupt influences within the US itself.

      The US has no grounds at all for preferring Sunni or Shiite, nor for any involvement other than humanitarian aid and education. But repeatedly the US has killed millions solely to get political bribes from the zionist/KSA/MIC/WallSt axis of evil.

      There is much in these wars to remind one of the Vietnam war era, substituting “terrorist” for “communist.” Who dares to suggest debate and negotiation, that the “terrorists” might have a cause, rather than being tagged by the only warmaking mechanism available to them? That is not their ideology, it is not who they are. Are we fighting for remote-control killing vs. beheading? We may not agree with them, but their factions have causes if not reasons.

      There are no “terrorists” or mere “rebels,” there are only causes and factions in conflict. When factions rebel, what is their cause? The US has sponsored “terrorists” from the beginning, Reagan building up AlQaeda from dozens to thousands, claiming that they were “freedom fighters” to oppose the USSR in Afghanistan, with billions in arms via Pakistan, and we continue to do so to get zionist/KSA bribes. The US oiigarchy knows full well that it supports no fighters for freedom.

      There was no “Russia conspiracy” in Ukraine but rather US exploitation of factional strife to get bribes for politicians.

      The real issues of these wars are never examined in the zionist controlled mass media. The cause of these wars always comes down to zionism and oligarchy and their various preferences, always the cause is US corruption.

  5. May 22, 2017 at 10:08

    The Donald Takes a Trip

    On his plane he flies to sunny Saudi Arabia
    To see his Saudi “friends” is that his mania?
    They will buy his “beautiful weapons”
    That support, “many” terrorist actions

    The Saudis are one of his, and our “allies”
    We help them bomb from Yemen’s skies
    They are part of our battle “coalition”
    That has created famine, killing and other additions

    He even did a sword dance with the head chopping Sheiks
    “Wonderful people” that don’t allow security leaks
    He is right at home with despots and dictators
    Though cynics might say, he keeps company with alligators…

    [more info at link below]

  6. Sally Snyder
    May 22, 2017 at 10:05

    Here is an article that looks at recent CIA propaganda regarding Saudi Arabia that received little news coverage in the United States:

    Apparently, even the Trump Administration can’t curry enough favour with the House of Saud.

  7. Max
    May 22, 2017 at 09:31

    If we should have a nation with no newspapers or no government, I’ll take the newspaper and no government. Car wash operation for Pittsburgh is off. Washington has more dirt and cars. We can have first aid in the car wash and have FBI discount for the fleet.

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