Trump stays belligerent on foreign policy

Trump gave himself a pat on the back for the defeat of ISIS.
Sunday 04/02/2018
Limited appeal. US President Donald Trump waves towards the Republican side of the House Chamber before his State of the Union address on Capitol Hill, on January 30. (AP)
Limited appeal. US President Donald Trump waves towards the Republican side of the House Chamber before his State of the Union address on Capitol Hill, on January 30. (AP)

Although he tried to strike a conciliatory tone on domestic policy during his State of the Union speech, US President Donald Trump seemed to relish taking a belligerent line on foreign policy, suggesting that the year ahead would be similar — and perhaps even tougher — to his approach in 2017 when it comes to the issue of US foreign aid.

Trump gave himself a pat on the back for the defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria but failed to mention that he essentially carried out Obama administration policies of supporting anti-ISIS, local ground forces with US advisers, air strikes and logistical and intelligence support.

Movingly, he paid tribute to a US Army staff sergeant in the audience who saved a comrade’s life while the two were searching for booby traps in Raqqa after it was liberated from ISIS. Trump was not only underscoring a particular act of heroism but also how the fight against ISIS has entailed American casualties and probably will continue to do so as ISIS regroups.

However, Trump was noticeably silent about US plans for Syria that have been the focus of attention of much of the US foreign policy establishment, especially as some officials, such as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, suggested that several thousand US troops likely would remain in Syria for some time.

Trump also reversed an Obama policy — though never carried out — about closing the US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, suggesting it would stay open indefinitely and would be the place where captured terrorists, whom he termed “unlawful enemy combatants,” would be detained.

He did not mention, nor did he seem to care about, that Guantanamo’s controversial history of ill-treatment of prisoners had damaged the US image abroad. Keeping this facility open was Trump’s way, in part, of defying the international community and catering to his political base.

On Iran, Trump struck a tough tone against the regime and in favour of the Iranian people. He again called on Congress to “address the fundamental flaws” in what he called the “terrible Iran nuclear deal” but he did not threaten to abrogate it as he had in other venues.  Whether this was an acknowledgement that the other members of the P5+1 countries are opposed to scuttling the deal or whether he wanted to appear more conciliatory towards these countries was not clear.

However, on the issue of international opposition to US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, conciliation was thrown out the window. Trump doubled down on his policy of threatening to punish countries that voted in the United Nations against the US decision on Jerusalem.

He said “dozens of countries voted in the United Nations General Assembly against America’s sovereign right to make this recognition” and went on to say that, in 2016: “American taxpayers generously sent those countries more than $20 billion in aid.” Trump called on Congress to pass legislation “to help ensure American foreign assistance dollars always serve American interests and only go to friends of America, not enemies of America.”

This language was vintage Trump but he took it a step further by essentially labelling the majority of countries in the world as America’s “enemies.” Never mind that Trump’s Jerusalem decision not only reversed the international consensus but also longstanding US policy and put the peace process in reverse gear.

Whether Trump carries through with this threat is a different matter, since Congress has ultimate authority on appropriation of foreign aid, but the issue may shape up as another partisan fight.

While Trump’s comments on Jerusalem and punishing countries that voted against the United States won a standing ovation from Republicans in the chamber, most Democrats sat silently during these remarks.

This episode was telling in that, while Democrats are on record in favour of recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, they have realised that such a provocative step is premature before there is an actual Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. This is why Democrats put in a “national security waiver” to the Jerusalem legislation several decades ago, giving the president the discretion to delay the decision until peace is achieved.

Democrats generally believe it is foolhardy to punish countries, including longstanding US friends and allies, simply because they voted against Trump’s position on Jerusalem.

However, Trump and his followers, including most Republicans who are responsive to the views of American evangelical Christians and more hawkish members of the Jewish-American community, do not care about such nuances. This fits the president’s “America First” approach.

Trump’s State of the Union speech underscored that belligerency in his foreign policy will remain his modus operandi.