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Trump calls on Arab world to unite against extremism

May 21, 2017 at 5:26 PM EDT
President Trump on Sunday called on the Arab world to show unity and partner with the U.S. to combat extremism and terrorism. The speech was held in Saudi Arabia to a summit of leaders from 50 Arab and Muslim-majority countries. Gary Sick, a senior researcher scholar at Columbia University, and Farah Pandith, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, join Alison Stewart with more.

ALISON STEWART, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: For some perspective on President Trump’s speech, I am joined here in the studio by Gary Sick, our senior research scholar from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. He served on the National Security Council for Presidents Carter, Ford, and Reagan.

And in Washington, Farah Pandith, a senior fellow with Council on Foreign Relations, joins us. She serves on the secretary of homeland security’s advisory council and previously served in the Obama and Bush administrations.

Gary, there seem to be a couple of recurring themes in this speech. One, the leaders in this room must stand up against terrorism, and, two, Iran is a common enemy. What do you think about the president focusing in on those two themes?

GARY SICK, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY’S SCHOOL OF INTERNATIONAL AND PUBLIC AFFAIRS: He really wanted to reset the relationship with the Islamic world. His campaign was full of attacks Islam in general and basically treating everybody as a terrorist. And I think he’s learned a lot since got into office. He’s met with a lot of Islamic leaders and has come to a conclusion that they are not all that bad and that you can work with them. In fact, I think what he’s discovered is he needs to work with them.

With regard to the other side of that and the way you do it is to adopt the position that all of those Arabs are taking. And the Sunnis who are in the room and I was almost all Sunnis, I didn’t see — I don’t believe there were any other represents of say Kurds or Shia that were there. The message was, we share your view completely, that Iran is the bad guy, that everything that goes wrong in the Middle East is because of Iran and we share your view on that without equivocation.

So, he said, one, he said, I’m not going to preach to you. In fact, changing the tone from where President Obama was, saying we think that the way you treat your own people is important. He said, we’re not going to bother telling you that, we’re not going to preach to you at all. But then he did go ahead and when he decided to preach, it was to Iran.

And basically here was a country across the water who just had an election, 57 percent of them voted for moderate guy who was not supported necessarily by the supreme leader and that went unmentioned.

STEWART: I want to bring Farah into the conversation.

The president spoke about gradual reforms versus intervention, and having tolerance for one another, but then there was those — that one theory of period (ph) of that drive them out, that very forceful language he used. I want to get your take on how was that received in the room by those leaders and then how will that be received by the average Muslim citizen?

FARAH PANDITH, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: This idea that Muslim should work together to fight terrorist organizations is not new. What was very important, and he did very strongly was to talk about the ideology that underpins extremism, yet he didn’t go into specifics about where that ideology came from. And I think it’s important to understand that here he is in Riyadh, a country that, you know, really has a lot to do with the spread of violent ideology around the world. ISIS uses the textbooks from Saudi Arabia, you know, in their so-called caliphate. So, there is a connection there. So, he danced around some of the themes that were very important, but he didn’t get into specifics.

The second piece, certainly, is that who was he speaking to? Yes, he was speaking to the 50-plus leaders and Muslim majority countries and it was very clear that this speech was to them.

It was not to Muslim communities around the world. He did not do the kind of extension to communities that you would have expected if that’s what the audience really was. So, for example, while he talked about the demographic of youth in the Middle East, that there was great potential, let’s remember that there are more Muslims that live outside of the Middle East than in it. Let’s remember that there are over a billion Muslims around the world that are under the age of 30, he did not talk about the future that they can have, if they work together, and he didn’t offer any deliverables in this speech for those young Muslims — which is a direct contrast obviously to President Obama’s speech in Cairo which did both the thematic piece and also the deliverable side.

STEWART: Farah, what do you think of the new Terrorism Finance Targeting Center? I don’t think it was lost on anyone that this was announced in Saudi Arabia which has a history we know of financing certain groups.

PANDITH: You know, it is really interesting and striking that in that room, we are looking at other Gulf states who have invested in both the messaging piece, the ideological piece, how do you push back against the ideology of extremists, and they have been partners with us in pushing back against the financing. And I think it was a mixed message by Trump. I mean, I applaud the president for calling out Muslim majority states to do more. I think he’s right to do that. He was also right to talk about the authenticity of a Muslim voice in speaking to Muslim communities, to actually protect the spread of this ideology. But, you know, it didn’t match with what those Muslim majority states are actually doing.

So, there are centers in the UAE that are doing a lot of work around the messaging. Saudi Arabia is, you know, a very important player in all of this because here the president is talking about a $400 billion economic deal that he is delivering to Saudi Arabia and offering Americans the opportunity to say we’re going to get jobs from that.

But what I would like the president to also do is offer a deal to America and that means using his influence to make sure that Saudi Arabia doesn’t incite hate around the world. And he could have offered that in a way that was more clear in this speech. And so, these centers that talk about financing, these centers that talk about messaging, are hollow if there’s no — there are no teeth behind what is actually being said.

STEWART: We didn’t hear a lot about human rights. There was a brief nod to women. Why do you think these ideas were absent?

PANDITH: I think that the audience in America is probably very shocked to see so little about democracy and freedom and human rights from this president. And I think for Muslim communities around the world, it’s what they want to hear from America, that we stand up for those minorities, that we work hard to advocate for things that are just and true. And it is an uncommon thing for an American president not to do that.

STEWART: Gary, what do you think about this absence of the discussion of human rights or women’s rights?

SICK: You know, they actually complained very much about President Obama talking over the heads of their leaders to the people as if this was a bad thing. I never saw that as a bad thing. I thought that talking over the heads of these leaders if you looked around the room with the people who were there and talking to their people directly wasn’t a bad thing at all, and that’s something as Farah said, he just didn’t do that.

If you want a reset of U.S. policy in the Middle East, he’s saying, we’re going to reset it, we’re going to deal with leaders who are there regardless of what their backgrounds are and regardless of whether we agree with them or not, or whether they share our values or not, we’re not going to worry too much about their own people, we’re not going to worry about their youth movement, we’re going to do deals with them, and we’re going to give them something and they’re going to give us something in return. And, basically, that’s our new policy.

STEWART: Farah, your thoughts on this?

PANDITH: The U.S. made a calculation to take the very first step overseas and go to Saudi Arabia with the premise that, in fact, they’re going to the heart of where Muslims are, and there’s a problematic symbolism with that. Saudi Arabia wants you to believe that they speak for all of Islam, while most Muslims live as I mentioned outside the Middle East, and in fact, I don’t see Saudi Arabia’s form of Islam as the right kind of Islam.

And for Americans, we cannot determine which is the right sect or the wrong sect of Islam but what we can do is to say to a country like Saudi Arabia that you don’t have the opportunity to speak for 1.6 billion people, and what we did here is we legitimized their viewpoint that they are the ones that are the center of Islam. And I think that is going to be an interesting thing to watch as the weeks and months go ahead.

STEWART: Farah Pandith and Gary Sick — thank you both for your analysis.

SICK: Thank you.

PANDITH: Thank you.