Here is my piece for Vital Speeches analysing President Trump’s major foreign policy speech in Saudi Arabia, comparing it to the rambling didactic speech by President Obama in Cairo in 2009. Key opening point:

This speech is 3402 words long. The Obama speech in 2009 had a sprawling 6050 words – far too many.

On the White House website the speech is there in full, entitled President Trump’s Speech to the Arab Islamic American Summit (sic).

President Trump:

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.

… 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.

In an interesting point of speechwriting technique, the office White House website version comes with CAPITAL LETTERS to denote emphasis:

America is prepared to stand with you – in pursuit of shared interests and common security.

But 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.

That’s clear enough.

I also note that President Trump does rather better than President Obama in using musty/needy expressions:

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 untrammelled 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.

* * * * * 

It’s noteworthy how both Presidents Obama and Trump have wasted no time in delivering blockbuster speeches in the Middle East on the broad theme of Islam and Extremism. That’s today’s world for you.

The problem facing any Western leader tackling these themes in the Middle East is obvious. How to say anything important about Extremism without appearing to give the impression that Islam per se is ‘extremist’ or at least unusually vulnerable to extremism? The balance has to be just right so as to keep on side those Middle East leaders in person and wider ‘reform’ tendencies that for their own reasons have no time for the most extreme Islamists and their revolting ideology.

President Obama’s 2009 speech was all about presenting himself as the Anti-Bush. His speech accordingly tried to sound positive and conciliatory. It mentioned ‘terrorism’ not at all, and ‘extremism’ only twice:

Islam is not part of the problem in combating violent extremism – it is an important part of promoting peace.

Is this in fact true, or at least the core of the issue? Surely there is a serious problem in ‘Islam’, namely various virulent aggressive forms of Islamic ideology/belief that threaten all of us. See yesterday’s carnage in Manchester. Surely more needs to be done by people squarely within the Islamic tradition to help stamp this out? President Obama’s ducking and weaving here made his speech nuanced to the point of overall incoherence:

Back to where I started. Whatever the underlying overlapping motivations President Obama had in mind, the core message he sent was that the USA under his leadership wants to deal with Islam as it is and not what ‘America’ might want it to be.

This does set a new accommodating tone. But I suspect that sooner or later events will show that the implicit encouragement it gives to anti-Western (and anti-American) impulses in the ‘Islamic world’ exceeds the encouragement it gives to those Muslims who are pressing for much greater and more pluralistic reforms.

Iranian writer Amir Taheri:

A speech is no substitute for policy. Obama has no Middle East policy, a fact certain to be exposed before long. He has no policy because he lacks the big idea around which policy is made.

In the Middle East today, those who fight for democracy and human rights are unhappy.

President Trump by contrast proclaims boldly and repeatedly that there is a huge problem with terrorism and extremism emanating from the Middle East and its problems, and he directly tells Middle Eastern political and religious leaders both to own it and take the lead in tackling 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 …

But we can only overcome this evil if the forces of good are united and strong – and if everyone in this room does their fair share and fulfils their part of the burden.

Therefore what?

All this boils down to deep questions of motivation and leadership at the heart of foreign policy rhetoric/practice.

Which works better? To persuade by logic, understatement and studied argument, as President Obama attempted to do in Cairo?

Or to ‘lay it all on the line’ and offer simple deals and exhortations that anyone can understand, as President Trump did this week in Saudi Arabia?

Is the Obama approach clever – but subtly condescending and so off-putting? Is the Trump approach crude – but subtly flattering and engaging?