President Donald Trump’s references to foreign policy in his State of the Union address were brief, defensive, and contradictory.
His remarks on protecting American security comprised only about 16 minutes of a one-hour-and-26-minute speech. They seemed more like a test run of 2020 campaign themes than any coherent outline of his efforts to defend the country.
Whether or not it was the president’s intention, his foreign policy mentions reinforced the image of a president who is bent on surrendering America’s decades of global leadership. And what he left out of his remarks was as telling as what he included.
Here are the top takeaways from the foreign policy portion of his speech.
America’s two strategic adversaries got hardly a mention. Trump referred to Russia only briefly (regarding arms treaties) although he did so indirectly when he decried “ridiculous partisan investigations.” As for China, he spoke of his imposition of tariffs on Beijing and work on a “new trade deal.” But he never mentioned the real danger from China (and Russia) against which the White House has refused to lead: the threats of cyberattacks that will dominate the wars of the future.
NATO allies were only referenced in terms of their increased military spending. No word of support for the alliance.
The president touted his increased military buildup and budget, but spent much of his 16 minutes defending his planned troop withdrawals from Syria and Afghanistan. His remarks were obviously directed at keeping a promise to his base. They also were aimed at the hefty number of GOP senators in the chamber, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who voted last week to rebuke the president on those troop withdrawals.
“Great nations do not fight endless wars,” the president said, citing “almost 19 years” fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. (Someone should tell him that Afghanistan is in Central Asia). He repeated his intent to withdraw 2,000 special forces from Syria. And on Afghanistan, he said “the hour has come to at least try for peace. And the other side (the Taliban) would like to do the same thing.”
What the president didn’t say is that he never informed the top U.S. commander in the Mideast, Gen. Joseph Votel, before abruptly announcing the U.S. withdrawal on Twitter. Nor did he say that such a withdrawal will aid Iranian and Russian efforts to deepen their hold on Syria — and put our Kurdish allies at dire risk. Or that a total withdrawal of 14,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan is likely to lead to a Taliban takeover, and, once again, to the crushing of Afghan women.
But most importantly, what Trump left out is that maintaining the small U.S. troop presence in both countries is not fighting a war. Rather, it is investing in long-term stability of those countries and preventing their fall to adversaries who can or will endanger U.S. interests. That troop presence also means standing by (Kurdish and Afghan) allies. What is the purpose of the huge military buildup of tanks and missiles, if we are unwilling to commit to those goals?
The president also proudly praised his other withdrawals — from arms treaties with Russia and Iran — but opened the door to a new arms race. Yes, Russia has probably violated the INF treaty on intermediate-range missiles, and China isn’t a party to the pact. But any threat to leave the deal should be a lever to renegotiate the deal with Moscow in a fashion that might also nudge China to join. Instead Trump wants to junk it, in apparent disdain for any nuclear accords, which reopens the door to an all-out nuclear arms race. “We have no choice,” he said, but that is untrue.
Ditto for junking the JCPOA nuclear deal with Iran. Trump proclaimed he did so “to ensure this corrupt dictatorship never acquires nuclear weapons.” But jettisoning a deal that prevented those weapons for at least 15 years goes in the opposite direction.
Trump announced a new summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un on Feb. 27-28, but didn’t mention there’s been no progress on denuclearization since the last summit. Many Korea experts worry the president will make further up-front concessions to Kim — like pledging to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea — without getting any reduction of North Korean nukes.
The president touted his efforts for regime change in Venezuela. Yet he made this questionable U.S. intervention appear as little more than a possible new theme for the 2020 election. He segued from denouncing the Maduro regime’s “socialist policies” into a rant against “new calls to adopt socialism in our country.”
This was a bizarre effort at trying to tar the Democratic Party with a bogeyman label that will appeal to Trump’s base. This doesn’t bode well for foreign policy in 2019.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.