President Trump is receiving generally high marks, even from some of his usual critics, for the speech he delivered Sunday in Saudi Arabia at the Arab Islamic American Summit – especially for his conciliatory comments toward Islam, which he called “one of the world’s great faiths.”
Of course, the Twittersphere had a field day contrasting the tone and careful language of the speech with Trump’s previous pronouncements, including his claim in 2016 that “I think Islam hates us…. There’s a tremendous hatred there.”
And while it’s an exaggeration to say that Barack Obama could have given the speech, it’s notable that Trump never used the term he excoriated his predecessor -- and Hillary Clinton -- for eschewing.
“These are radical Islamic terrorists and [Clinton] won’t even mention the word, and nor will President Obama,” Trump said at an Oct. 9 debate with his Democratic rival.
Yet Trump also avoided the term “radical Islamic terrorism” in his speech in Riyadh, in which he did declare that “Muslim nations must be willing to take on the burden, if we are going to defeat terrorism and send its wicked ideology into oblivion.”
His prepared text referred to “the crisis of Islamist extremism and the Islamist terror groups it inspires.” (In the speech as delivered, “Islamist terror groups” turned into “Islamists and Islamic terror of all kinds.)
But Trump never uttered the magic words “radical Islamic terrorism.”
One speech does not a new policy make. But perhaps Trump has realized why Obama was careful with his language.
In a 2015 editorial, the Los Angeles Times observed that “the president’s diplomatic language doesn’t mean he’s in denial about either the existence or the popular appeal of radical interpretations of Islam.” Rather, Obama realized that “portraying the campaign against Islamic State as a war on Islam wouldn’t just be inaccurate; it would be incendiary and self-defeating.” Obama thought the catchphrase “radical Islamic terrorism” connoted just such a view.
Maybe Trump is groping toward that insight. In any event, he seems to have been persuaded to de-escalate his rhetoric.
We’ll know for sure if he’s more careful with his language not just in prepared speeches but in other settings — including, of course, Twitter.