Despite the ongoing mass hysteria among Washington’s punditry on the potential foreign policy fallout of President Donald Trump’s recent executive orders, the recent phone call between him and Saudi King Salman seems to have been warm and substantive. Trump’s call with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan was characterized by both Washington and Abu Dhabi as reinforcing strong bilateral relations.
One notable Al Jazeera English presenter said on social media: “In seven days Trump has probably done more to damage US standing in the world and promote radicalization...” That does not seem to be the case, judging from the outcome of his calls. The one with King Salman lasted an hour, a strong signal that the discussion was positive and focused (White House calls to foreign leaders do not typically last more than a few minutes).
If there was a question in the American public’s mind on where their country’s historically closest allies in the Sunni Muslim world stood on issues of terrorism, the official read-out of the call ought to put that to rest: The two leaders’ views “were identical” on terrorism, extremism and the need for a coordinated effort against “those who seek to undermine security and stability in the region.”
The discussion between them also centered on strengthening joint military cooperation in the ongoing anti-Daesh coalition. This seems to highlight a level of nuance in Trump’s approach to shaping his foreign policy.
His outreach to the Saudi king and Abu Dhabi crown prince is viewed by many observers as an important first step in strengthening US ties with these two countries, particularly when it comes to the campaign to defeat Daesh militarily and counter it ideologically.
Countering Iran and ensuring its full compliance with the nuclear deal was another mainstay of the discussion. This is significant because often in the past, talks on this topic between Arab leaders and the Barack Obama administration often led to very little follow up by Washington. Malign Iranian activity in the Arabian Gulf, Yemen, Iraq and Syria was never a high priority (if at all) for the Obama national security establishment.
Trump’s assurances that he will take seriously Iranian-sponsored terror activity will need to be followed up by real action. Nonetheless, the fact that the topic was raised in his first calls to world leaders will do plenty to make Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and ayatollahs in Tehran anxious.
Finding a sustainable solution to the Syrian refugee crisis means that US must ultimately deal with the root cause of the problem. Trump raised the topic of safe zones in his call with King Salman, as well as the ongoing conflict. Reactive measures will not offer lasting policy prescriptions to the genocide in Syria and the displacement of millions.
It was reassuring that Trump raised the topics of safe zones and Syria. A multilateral approach to working with longstanding US allies in the Middle East is the only truly compassionate and sustainable answer to dealing with the refugee crisis and the spill-over of the conflict.
On Syria, the Obama administration sought to pursue a policy of containment, which clearly did not work. Europe suffered the consequences. There was no appetite in dealing with the core of the problem, nor with working in tandem with Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf allies in finding a way to end the slaughter.
Trump has to deal with the mess left behind by his predecessor. Indeed, the tone of Trump’s discussions with King Salman and Crown Prince Muhammad was strikingly more diplomatic and earnest toward the Arab coalition than the farewell speech given by former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter at the Manama Dialogue in December.
The rhetoric among some politicians in Washington has been remarkably hypocritical on the topic of refugees. While attacking Trump, many lawmakers such as Sen. Chris Murphy, actively opposed proposals in September 2013 that would have authorized military measures to protect Syrian civilians and stop President Bashar Assad’s Iran-backed war machine. Their purported compassion for Syrians rings hollow without an action plan that can end the suffering in earnest.
Hopefully Trump maintains the momentum he is building with Arab and Muslim allies abroad. Countering Iranian-sponsored terror and finding a solution to Syria and the refugee crisis will all depend on it.
• Oubai Shahbandar is a former Department of Defense senior adviser, and currently a strategic communications consultant specializing in Middle Eastern and Gulf affairs.