H.A. Hellyer is senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington and the Royal United Services Institute in London.
It is difficult to remember a time in recent history when a political leader attracted so much attention for a speech with such low expectations. When Donald Trump spoke about Islam on Sunday in Saudi Arabia to a group of Muslim political leaders, he was in precisely that position. To say he didn't disappoint isn't a compliment – because those watching just hoped it wouldn't be utterly offensive or stupid. Still, it wasn't a speech that anyone will be citing in years to come as inspiring – except perhaps for Mr. Trump's most die-hard fans. And even they may be unhappy.
There were two major issues with the speech, which were clear from even before Mr. Trump arrived in Riyadh. The first was that anything positive he was set to say about Muslims or Islam was going to be overshadowed by the wide variety of statements senior figures in his administration have already made that condemned both. There is no way to square that hole.
When Mr. Trump declared on Sunday, for example, that "this is not a battle between different faiths, different sects or different civilizations," how can one not remember the statements wholly to the contrary by the likes of Steve Bannon, Mr. Trump's chief adviser, and Stephen Miller, his speech writer? Or the recently departed Michael Flynn, who publicly declared Islam wasn't even a religion? What sort of credibility can possibly be relied upon with this kind of background? Or indeed, Mr. Trump himself, when he proclaimed, "I think Islam hates us"?
But let us try to ignore the integrity of the speech based on previous statements the Trump camp has made in recent months, and judge the content of the speech on its own merits. There, the picture is hardly more positive.
Mr. Trump called on Muslims at large to fight extremists and "drive them from the Earth" – which, presumably, means he believes Muslims are not trying to do that already. The irony is that Mr. Trump himself recognized in his speech that Muslims are the ones who suffer the most from radical Islamist extremism. It is primarily Muslims who are fighting against extremists; and it is primarily Muslims who give their lives to protect against those kinds of scourges.
What is more, Mr. Trump himself is unclear about what extremism even is, or how it thrives. There is an uncomfortable relationship between extremists and the unreconstructed Wahhabism that is rooted in Saudi's religious establishment – Mr. Trump said nothing about that connection, unsurprisingly. Moreover, there are political factors involved in the attraction to extremism, which is indelibly linked to the autocracy that festers throughout much of the Arab world – in his speech, Mr. Trump drew no attention to that whatsoever. Extremism certainly has ideological drivers, but it also has socio-economic and political ones, which were scarcely even hinted at.
One thing did stand out, and that was Mr. Trump's confusing terminology. The official speech transcript had: "Islamist extremism and the Islamist terror groups it inspires." Instead, Mr. Trump said, "Islamic extremists, and the Islamists and Islamic terror of all kinds." The President had previously made a great deal out of Barack Obama not using the term "Islamic terror," which is why it was somewhat surprising seeing him avoid the term in the official transcript.
While the difference between "Islamic" and "Islamist" might seem to be innocuous to most listeners, it may be politically important. Islamic implies a level of authenticity and rootedness in Islam as a religion; Islamist would relate more to the politicization of the faith, and is most often used to describe groups ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood to al-Qaeda. Was this a signal at a change in policy at any level for Mr. Trump? Did he want to send one message to his base in the U.S. who wanted to hear "Islamic terror" while sending another message to his Saudi hosts, who would likely prefer "Islamist" over "Islamic"?
White House officials have been openly declaring that this would be Mr. Trump's counter to Mr. Obama's speech in 2009. Say what you will about Barack Obama's speech in 2009 in Cairo – and there is much to say, not all entirely positive – but neither Mr. Obama nor his closest advisers had a record of anti-Muslim bigotry and Islamophobia. The eventual impact of that speech was negligible, for a variety of reasons. But it was a speech that the world took seriously when it was given.
With Mr. Trump's speech, for all the top billing it has been given in the media worldwide, no one expects it to have any impact at all, nor for it to have been particularly inspirational. It's an absurdly low bar – and Mr. Trump met it.