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Burying the lede in Mr. Trump’s Riyadh speech

Commentary in the wake of President Trump's speech last Sunday in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia to the leaders of more than 50 Muslim countries has focused almost exclusively on his call for unified Arab action to combat Islamist extremism and resist an Iran that he described as having "fueled the fires of sectarian conflict and terror" for decades.

Thus, in a Washington Post op-ed Thursday, former House Speaker and Trump campaigner Newt Gingrich gushed that, in challenging Muslims to take the lead in defeating terrorism and extremism, Mr. Trump's speech represented "a titanic shift in U.S. foreign policy," comparable to President Ronald Reagan's 1982 Westminster speech to Great Britain's parliament calling the Western allies to arms against Communist totalitarianism.

Not to be outdone, on Friday, Post columnist Charles Krauthammer cheered what he called the "unmistakable declaration of a radical re-orientation of U.S. policy in the region." Mr. Trump's decision to begin his first overseas trip in Saudi Arabia and his excoriation of Saudi rival Iran, Krauthammer declared, reverses what he described as "Barack Obama's tilt toward Iran in the great Muslim civil war between Shiite Iran and Sunni Arabs."

Given the authors, one shouldn't be surprised by the historical hyperbole. Contrary to Mr. Gingrich's claim, however, Trump scarcely is the first president to urge unified Muslim action against violent extremism. 

Both of his immediate predecessors did so as well, recognizing correctly that neither the U.S. nor the West collectively would ever be able through military coercion alone to suppress, let alone permanently eradicate, the cultural antagonism and resentment fueling Islamist violence. That Mr. Trump also recognizes it is a relief.

That said, it's not a little ironic that, having repeatedly pilloried President Obama for "leading from behind" in the global war on Islamist extremism, conservatives like Mr. Gingrich now praise Mr. Trump for urging Arabs similarly to take the lead in that war.

Mr. Krauthammer's comments reflect an even greater carelessness with history. If one nation could be held responsible for Iran's enlarged footprint in the Middle East, it's the U.S., which by invading Iraq ó not once but twice ó effectively destroyed the regional balance of power that formerly kept Iran in check.

Moreover, once again, there's unavoidable irony in the picture of an American president complaining of Iran, whose relatively moderate president recently was overwhelmingly reelected, to the unelected ruler of the nation that bred Osama bin Laden and 15 of the 9-11 terrorists, and that, as Krauthammer himself acknowledges, continues blithely to fund anti-Western wahhabist madrassas throughout the world.

The worse defect of these commentaries, however, is less their cavalier distortion of history, than their failure to acknowledge by far the most important statement in the president's speech: his declaration that "We are not here to lecture ó we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship...We will make decisions based on real-world outcomes ó not inflexible ideology."

That indeed would be a fundamental change in an American foreign policy characterized for at least the previous three administrations by ideological arrogance, contempt of international norms and opinion, and unrestrained military interventionism.

Far from diminishing violent extremism, the results instead can be measured in thousands of lost or shattered lives, trillions of squandered dollars, and the utter demolition of America's once enviable reputation for effective strategic leadership.

Note that the issue here isn't, as some would mischaracterize it, whether the United States should intervene abroad, or even how. It's when it should intervene, for what purposes, and at what price in other strategic priorities neglected or ignored altogether.

We once applied that logic, before ideological arrogance and overweening confidence in the self-evidence of our own good intentions replaced strategic prudence, reasonable deference to international opinion ó especially of our allies ó and a realistic understanding and acceptance of our own limitations.

Some may recall that it was in response to candidate George W. Bush's promise to refrain from Clintonian nation-building, a promise that survived less than a year beyond his election, that Al Gore, his Democratic opponent, notoriously insisted that "Just because we can't intervene everywhere, it doesn't mean we shouldn't intervene anywhere."

Since then, under Mr. Bush and his successor, "anywhere" has become pretty much "everywhere." Taking him at his word, we should expect President Trump to curtail that disastrous policy. 

The question is whether he will follow through on that promise. With Mr. Trump, steadfastness can't be taken for granted, and his commitment to obliterating ISIS world-wide would intrinsically militate against it.

But far more than his call for Muslim leadership against both Sunni and Shi'ite extremism, foreswearing American messianism and the interventionism to which it has led would indeed be a titanic foreign policy shift.

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