WASHINGTON – Despite Saudi Arabia’s history of exporting Islamic radicalism, the Trump administration told WND it believes it can partner with the kingdom to combat radical Islam in the Middle East.
Senior administration officials briefed reporters on the purpose of President Trump’s trip to the Middle East later this month, which will include an attempt to form a coalition of countries in the region to counter ISIS and Iran.
The president said the trip, announced Thursday, “will begin with a truly historic gathering in Saudi Arabia with leaders from all across the Muslim world,” where “we will begin to construct a new foundation of cooperation and support with our Muslim allies to combat extremism, terrorism and violence.”
WND asked top White House officials, “How do you partner with Saudi Arabia against radicalization when the regime has a history of promoting a radical version of Islam, Wahabbism, around the world in its madrasas (schools)?”
WND also asked, “And how can you be sure the Saudis have had a genuine change of heart, or policy, and that they are not just opportunistically using the occasion against Iran?”
Calling it “a very good question,” a senior administration official said “it remains to be seen” if the Saudi shift is genuine.
He said “we go by tangible results” and “we have a way of measuring tangible results,” implying that is how President Trump will evaluate Saudi sincerity.
The official said the objective was to isolate radical groups, suggesting it would be one form of evidence of the results the administration seeks.
“We’re optimistic, but we’ll see,” the top official cautioned.
Another senior official tempered expectations, saying it was “a good question,” but cautioning, “We see a real willingness and leadership commitment” from key countries in the Middle East in responding to the administration’s diplomatic effort.
In response to a follow-up email asking what kind of evidence would demonstrate the Saudis could be counted on to partner against radical Islamism, another administration official responded: ” We are in the process of discussing metrics and strong measures will be in place to ensure that any initiatives meet their stated objectives.”
At Thursday’s briefing, the senior officials did express optimism that the trip was a unique opportunity, “a moment in time,” to rally Islamic states in the region against radicalism and “bring them to the table” to form new partnerships.
That’s because, the officials maintained, of the very clear terror threat posed to those regimes by ISIS and an “emboldened Iran,” a long-time foe of Saudi Arabia.
One senior administration official said another reason that the moment was unique is that the rise of the twin threats of ISIS and Iran made it clear that Israel was not the obstacle to Mideast peace, and recognition of that was growing through the region.
Announcing the trip during a Rose Garden ceremony Thursday morning, President Trump said, “Our task is not to dictate to others how to live, but to build a coalition of friends and partners who share the goal of fighting terrorism.”
One official made a point of noting that the administration did not believe its policy of “America first” was incompatible with American leadership.
The official said America was in the process of restoring its strategic competence in the region.
Saudi officials, meanwhile, have been signaling they intend to temper their support for radical Islam.
In September, the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the United Nations, Zalmay Khalizad, wrote in Politico that a top Saudi official had made a “startling confession” of misleading the West about its support for Islamic extremism.
Khalizad claimed the Saudis had a “new and unprecedented policy of honesty,” insisting “their support for extremism was a way of resisting the Soviet Union,” and, later, “against Iranian-supported Shiite movements in the geopolitical competition between the two countries.”
“But over time,” Khalizad continued, “the Saudis say, their support for extremism turned on them, metastasizing into a serious threat to the kingdom and to the West. They had created a monster that had begun to devour them.”
“We did not own up to it after 9/11 because we feared you would abandon or treat us as the enemy,” the Saudi senior official told him. “And we were in denial.”
While cautioning that time would tell if the new approach is genuine, the former ambassador said the Saudis now see “Islamic extremism as one of the two major threats facing the kingdom – the other threat being Iran.”
Khalizad concluded: “The new Saudi leadership, in other words, appears to be downgrading ideology in favor of modernization. In fact, one senior Saudi official explicitly said that the kingdom was pursuing a ‘revolution under the cover of modernization’ – meaning that modernization was now the driver of Saudi policy.”
Officially, the White House announced President Trump has accepted an invitation from King Salman bin Abd Al-Aziz to visit Saudi Arabia later in May.
The visit “will reaffirm the strong partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia and allow the leaders to discuss issues of strategic concern, including efforts to defeat terrorist groups and discredit radical ideologies,” the announcement said.
A top administration official said the purpose of the trip was to “defeat radicalism and promote tolerance.”
The trip is also designed to foster improved relations between Israel and its neighbors.
President Trump will visit Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel and discuss “a range of regional issues, including the need to counter the threats posed by Iran and its proxies, and by ISIS and other terrorist groups.”
The president also will visit President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority and Pope Francis in Rome.
Those visits will precede President Trump’s attendance at the G-7 summit meetings in Sicily at the end of May.