The day before President Trump landed in Saudi Arabia on his first presidential visit abroad Secretary of Defense James Mattis declared that we were not intending just to defeat ISIS in Syria. President Trump, Mattis said, had authorized the military to conduct the campaign without political micromanagement.
Mattis described our objective in the anti-ISIS campaign in the clear and deadly terms we haven’t heard in a decade. He said, “The foreign fighters are the strategic threat should they return home to Tunis, to Kuala Lumpur, to Paris, to Detroit, wherever. Those foreign fighters are a threat. So by taking the time to de-conflict, to surround and then attack, we carry out the annihilation campaign so we don’t simply transplant this problem from one location to another.”
Mattis’s announcement came shortly after a U.S. airstrike on Assad forces that disregarded the “de-confliction” zones established by the May 3 Russian-Iranian-Turkish agreement I wrote about last week. Mattis won’t allow this new Tripartite Alliance to control our campaign to kill the ISIS fighters.
While Mattis was making his announcement, the Saudis blocked a U.S. effort at the UN to label the Saudi branch of ISIS a terrorist organization. They won’t admit that the problem exists in their country.
That set the stage for the president’s visit to the Middle East.
When then-president Obama first visited Saudi Arabia in 2009, he bowed deeply to the Saudi king as if he were a supplicant prince rather than the leader of the free world. President Trump didn’t. Neither First Lady Melania Trump nor First Daughter Ivanka Trump wore Islamic headscarves even at the Arab summit on Sunday.
On his first day there, Trump and the Saudis signed agreements — reportedly worth more than $350 billion in total and including about $110 billion in defense sales — that brought smiles all around. Well, not quite. The Saudis’ military buy ensures that much of the manufacturing of the Saudis’ purchases will take place in Saudi Arabia, resulting in fewer U.S. defense jobs. More importantly, it must include technology transfers enabling that manufacturing, which may provide the Saudis with technological advantages over other U.S. allies.
The president spoke to a group of Sunni national leaders on Sunday evening. The gathering, billed as an “Arab Islamic American Summit,” brought together hundreds of leaders of the Sunni Muslim nations from around the world, including those from as far away as Malaysia.
It wasn’t a friendly audience. Throughout the speech television cameras panned the room showing the Muslim leaders’ facial expressions. They ranged from boredom to contempt, and not a few evinced anger. Near the beginning of his speech, the president paused on an obvious applause line and was greeted with silence.
President Trump wasn’t as tough and direct as many of us had hoped, but his speech was pretty good. At times, he spoke in Islamic code words as when he said he would deliver more “blessed news” from his meetings with Saudi King Salman and some of the Saudi princes.
The president announced that a new “global center for combating extremist ideology” was being formed, and that it would be accompanied by the formation of a group allied to target terrorist financing. Trump said that latter group was being joined by the six oil monarchies that comprise the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates).
At several points, the president called upon the Muslim leaders to join in the fight against terrorism which he called a battle between good and evil. This was when the crowd appeared most sullen and contemptuous.
Though it was politic for the president to make that call and announce those new anti-ideology and anti-financing efforts, they are not going to succeed for one reason: the ideology of terrorism is embedded in some of the holiest tenets of Islam.
At a few points, the president mentioned terrorist ideology, which he referred to as a “vile creed,” “wicked,” and a “craven ideology.” But the president failed to take advantage of the best opportunity he will ever have to begin the ideological war that, as I have written so many times, is essential to engage in and win if we are ever to win the war the terrorists are waging against us.
If Trump had asked them to look at themselves and their nations, to look at what they have been taught since childhood, he could have reminded them that what Egyptian President al-Sisi said in January 2015 should continue to haunt them. Al-Sisi said then that it made no sense for Islam to have beliefs that compelled it to always be at war with the non-Muslim world. The president could have, and should have, made that precise point.
That the president didn’t do so didn’t make his speech a failure, nor did it guarantee against some small successes against terror in the region. But it ensured that we wouldn’t vary from the politically-correct path that we have trod since 9/11. That path has put us on the strategic defensive and cannot lead to winning the war.
Near the end of his speech the president condemned Iran for financing, arming, training, and giving sanctuary to terrorists. Even that caused no nods or applause from the audience. Only when his speech ended was there a brief round of polite applause. (There’s no cultural bar to applause, smiles or cheers. The Arab audience stood, cheered and applauded Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech at several points.)
One of the trial balloons the White House floated before the trip was the idea of persuading the Sunni nations to form a NATO-like alliance aimed at fighting terrorism and countering Iranian aggression. It’s not clear if the president raised the issue while in Riyadh, but some of his remarks could be interpreted as encouraging such a new alliance. The president promised cooperation and hard work with all the attending nations in the fight against terrorism.
That idea isn’t new. In our 2014 book The Sunni Vanguard, Herb London, David Goldman and I discussed the desirability of such an alliance.
The moment seems ripe but it won’t happen. The Saudis are fighting Shiite rebels in Yemen, aided by a U.S. special operations force. Others, such as Jordan, are fighting alongside us in Syria and elsewhere, though Turkey has joined Russia and Iran in support of Assad’s terrorist regime. The majority of the Gulf States and Muslim nations outside the region have no interest in helping fight any co-religionists, even Islamic terrorists.
Trump left Saudi Arabia last night for Jerusalem for talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmood Abbas. He has said repeatedly that he wishes to tilt at the windmill of peace between them, and he will try. He has apparently put on hold his campaign promise to move our embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in hope of winning points with Abbas. There’s not a glimmer of hope that he will, or that yet another round of peace talks will succeed.
From there, the president will visit the Pope in Rome and then go on to Brussels to meet with NATO heads of state. He’ll remind them of their obligations to spend on their own defense, and probably say (wrongly, yet again) that they should pay us to defend them. Some of the NATO nations say they agree that they should spend more on defense, but they won’t.
Mr. Trump then returns to the political chaos that engulfed him before he left. The media bashing, the leaks, the investigations and such continue while he’s gone and will intensify again after he returns.
Secretary Mattis and our armed forces will, as he said, surround and annihilate ISIS forces in Syria. That will be the beginning installment of a lesson for all the terrorist networks. More U.S. troops are headed to Afghanistan to sustain the fight against the Taliban. More still will head to Iraq to fight ISIS.
Successes in the war won’t stop the Dem/media axis’s campaign to oust the president, but they can help change the narrative. If Mr. Trump is wise, he will focus on helping Secretary Mattis and publicizing their joint achievements.
At this writing we don’t know if the president will take a short side-trip to visit our troops in Iraq on his way to his next destination? He should because — like it or not — he is a war president. Acting like one won’t silence his critics, but the people who voted for him will take heart.
As I go to sleep every night I remind myself of how much worse shape we’d be in if Hillary Clinton were president. Think about James Mattis and Neal Gorsuch and sleep well tonight.