Tim Stanley: Trump has brought a new sense of strategic vision -- a corrective to the regional crises that hardened under Obama
He says Trump is doing what Obama was reluctant to do: He's picking sides, even when choices are not ideal. Manchester has made it more crucial
Editor’s Note: Timothy Stanley, a conservative, is a historian and columnist for Britain’s Daily Telegraph. He is the author of “Citizen Hollywood: How the Collaboration Between LA and DC Revolutionized American Politics.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Today, I admire Donald Trump. His remarks made in the aftermath of the terror attack in Manchester captured the mood in Britain perfectly. Terrorists are not soldiers, not even murderers – they are “losers.” And this tragic event validates Trump’s initiative of uniting the world against terrorism. Suddenly, he feels like a serious international leader.
There has to be a change in tone. Barack Obama began his presidency with an erudite speech in Cairo declaring that America would be humbler from now on. Trump, by contrast, landed in Saudi Arabia looking like an emperor meeting a king. Trump’s provincialism is an act. He might not understand the etiquette of Capitol Hill, but international business is in his bones.
He brings with him, abroad, a new sense of strategic vision. Obama’s critics should give him a break for having to govern in a time of anarchy and limited choices. But he compounded regional crises by laying down red lines, for instance on the use of chemical weapons, that he then allowed dictators to cross. He hung back from action in Syria, yet aided the revolt against Gadhafi in Libya.
And his centerpiece deal with Iran came at a heavy price: the slow expansion of Tehran’s influence throughout the region. No wonder Gulf states desire greater US involvement, and Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, praised the US Tomahawk strike on a Syrian airstrip.
This is what Trump is doing that Obama was reluctant to do: He’s picking sides. The choices are not ideal. Who would want to ally with Saudi Arabia, a fossilized monarchy that won’t even let women drive, which has long been accused of itself exporting extremism? On the other hand, when Saudi Arabia is in a proxy war with Iran in Yemen, it is at least coherent and rational to sell arms to the Saudis.
The Saudis are not good guys but, say the realists, they aren’t bad guys, either, in the sense of wanting to hurt the West. The Iranians, by contrast, are accused of breaking the terms of Obama’s nuclear agreement with missile tests. Two of these missiles were reported to carry slogans calling for the downfall of Israel.
That’s why Trump’s appearance at the Western Wall in Jerusalem was important too – and quite emotional. Trump has made a commitment to Israel that clears up any doubt left by Obama. Critics will sniff that this shows his own lack of imagination, or the influence of neoconservatives.
But what is the alternative? To isolate the only properly functioning democracy in the region – a friend to the West struggling to survive against the odds?
Moreover, Israel’s experience and intelligence is critical to the defeat of ihadist terrorism. Which brings us to the final strand of Trump’s Middle East tour.
Trump’s “good vs. evil speech” on terrorism, delivered in Riyadh, was precisely what we needed to hear. His talk on the campaign trail about Islam was pure bigotry. This speech was a necessary corrective. It drew a line between terrorist activity and legitimate Muslim politics, a line that is critical if the war against terrorism is to be won.
The greatest fear I had of Trump’s foreign policy was that he might bleed popular American dislike of Islam into an all-out conflict with it. But, as he observed in his speech, the greatest victims of Muslim violence are Muslims – so there are plenty of Muslims for America to ally with.
Trump’s warmest reception has been among Muslims and Jews. He may find the Christians are a harder audience. When he visits Pope Francis on Wednesday, he meets a seasoned diplomat with his own sense of strategic priorities: tackle global warming, compel Europeans to take more refugees, defend Christian’s overseas.
Yet any tensions between Francis and Trump will surely be overshadowed by the terror attack in Manchester. Israelis and Saudis speak bluntly about the threat posed to civilization by radical jihadists; Europeans retreat behind platitudes. It’s good for all three to be rallied by a president who wants to emphasize what everyone has in common, which is a vulnerability to terror.