President Donald Trump’s Sunday address in Saudi Arabia was bound to inspire comparisons to the speech Barack Obama delivered in Cairo, Egypt at a similar point in his young presidency. And just like his predecessor, Mr. Trump expressed gratitude and respect for his hosts. But the 45th U.S. President quickly made clear that he did not fly to the Middle East on his first overseas trip in order to explain what’s wrong with America.
It would be a crude overstatement to say that the message has gone from America worst to America first in one presidency. Mr. Obama did speak favorably of his country several times during his Cairo address. But the difference between Barack Obama’s speech in 2009 and the Trump remarks on Sunday in Riyadh is striking.
In 2009, Mr. Obama started out by making the case why Muslims should view his country with distrust:
We meet at a time of great tension between the United States and Muslims around the world — tension rooted in historical forces that go beyond any current policy debate. The relationship between Islam and the West includes centuries of coexistence and cooperation, but also conflict and religious wars. More recently, tension has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations. Moreover, the sweeping change brought by modernity and globalization led many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam.
Later, Mr. Obama faulted the United States for overreacting to 9/11 and noted that he had ordered the closing of the prison at Guantanamo Bay by early 2010—a promise he would not fulfill. Mr. Obama also sought to make sure that the U.S. received an ample share of the blame for its poor relations with one of the world’s primary sponsors of terrorism:
For many years, Iran has defined itself in part by its opposition to my country, and there is in fact a tumultuous history between us. In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government. Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has played a role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians. This history is well known. Rather than remain trapped in the past, I’ve made it clear to Iran’s leaders and people that my country is prepared to move forward.
Even on issues of women’s rights, Mr. Obama didn’t want to give the U.S. much credit in comparison to the Muslim world. The latter is a world where women sometimes struggle just for the freedom to read books or drive automobiles. But Mr. Obama said that “the struggle for women’s equality continues in many aspects of American life, and in countries around the world.”
In Riyadh on Sunday, President Trump spent no time blaming America or making excuses for our adversaries. But he did note the possibilities available to a Middle East that rejects terror:
The potential of this region has never been greater. 65 percent of its population is under the age of 30. Like all young men and women, they seek great futures to build, great national projects to join, and a place for their families to call home.
But this untapped potential, this tremendous cause for optimism, is held at bay by bloodshed and terror. There can be no coexistence with this violence.
There can be no tolerating it, no accepting it, no excusing it, and no ignoring it.
Mr. Trump added that “no discussion of stamping out this threat would be complete” without mentioning the government that gives terrorists “safe harbor, financial backing, and the social standing needed for recruitment. It is a regime that is responsible for so much instability in the region. I am speaking of course of Iran.” And he left no ambiguity about who was responsible:
The Iranian regime’s longest-suffering victims are its own people. Iran has a rich history and culture, but the people of Iran have endured hardship and despair under their leaders’ reckless pursuit of conflict and terror. Until the Iranian regime is willing to be a partner for peace, all nations of conscience must work together to isolate Iran, deny it funding for terrorism, and pray for the day when the Iranian people have the just and righteous government they deserve.
By the way, this column should note that perhaps the most striking comment when one looks back at Mr. Obama’s 2009 remarks has little to do with U.S. foreign policy, but underlines how far and how quickly the Democratic Party has moved on issues of sexual identity. Toward the end of his speech, Mr. Obama said, “The Holy Koran tells us: ‘O mankind! We have created you male and a female; and we have made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another.’” Referencing that line today in the era of transgender politics would have progressives back in the U.S. shrieking for a safe space.
As for the safety of the entire civilized world in its fight against Islamic terror, this column expects that many overseas listeners will find reassurance in a message from America without apologies.