The impact of what he says should lead him to think before he speaks, but his State of the Union (SOTU) address
on Tuesday night proved otherwise, particularly when he broached topics of foreign policy.
Instead of showing a clear strategy, Trump cherry-picked foreign crises to call attention to and described a disturbing set of double standards in how we approach various nations, which indicates that there is no consistent, analytic approach to foreign policy issues that matter deeply to American national security. If the President wants to earn the confidence of the American people and be viewed as credible by foreign leaders, there are a few points he needs to address.
“Crisis” communications gone wrong
The SOTU is an opportunity for a President to highlight crises affecting our country, both foreign and domestic. What he chooses to mention is an important signal about what matters most to him and what he’s going to spend his time and resources on.
The crisis column in any SOTU outline is always chock full; but on Tuesday, President Trump indicated that he will continue to focus on manufactured emergencies that he ostensibly thinks play well politically, rather than on a prioritized set of threats to American national security.
Migrants making their way from Central America to our southern border are in fact fleeing crises at home — poverty and crime lead men, women, and children to journey north
. But the President didn’t use his SOTU to announce more aid to these countries. Instead, he used questionable data points to bolster his argument for a wall and then lauded his own decision to deploy American troops to the border region.
This new deployment of troops, when considered alongside the President’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria and potentially Afghanistan
, highlighted the President’s ongoing inability (or unwillingness) to determine real from perceived threats. To avoid appropriating resources to address the wrong enemies, Trump needs to rethink his utilization of our military forces and seriously consider the ramifications of the orders he gives instead of disproportionately communicating about crises that fit a political rather than a national security agenda.
Cherry-picking of reality was rife in the President’s speech.
Trump bragged about defeating ISIS despite the fact that ISIS remains a viable threat
in both Iraq and Syria, according to his top commander for the region.
He claimed progress in nuclear talks with North Korea — talks which should continue — despite having actually achieved very little thus far. Indeed, his own Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, stated
that North Korea has no intention of surrendering their nuclear arsenal anytime soon.
Trump also touted his administration’s efforts to negotiate with the Taliban — and they should be applauded for pursuing these talks. But he failed to recognize that fruitful negotiations with any chance of success must include the democratically-elected government in Kabul and that ISIS, Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups still enjoy safe haven there absent the support that the United States and NATO troops provide to Afghan National Security Forces.
Even if reality bites, the President must stop hiding from it and face the challenges in a realistic way.
The President did something out of character during the State of the Union: He spoke about the importance of standing with people as they pursue their quest for freedom and as they try to live without fearing brutality, poverty, and repression. But he applied that standard to Venezuela, criticizing President Nicolas Maduro, immediately after touting his good relationship with one of the most repressive and abusive despots in the world — Kim Jong Un.
The takeaway for oppressors around the world is clear: The President has no consistent approach to those whom he will embrace and those whom he will abandon.
But the President ‘s inconsistencies didn’t just apply to human rights abuses. They also applied to his stance on nuclear weapons. Trump mentioned Russian misbehavior — something he doesn’t often do — and its violations of the INF treaty, but shortly after, he yet again gave Kim Jong Un a free pass on his continued violations of UN Security Council resolutions.
What’s more, he slammed Iran, rightly, for their nefarious activities in the Middle East and Levant, but couldn’t resist lambasting the Iranian Nuclear Deal, which has thus far prevented Tehran from pursuing a nuclear arsenal.
Make no mistake, Iran remains a lethal threat. But one would hope Trump could bring himself to realize that if Iran should restart its nuclear program, instability in the region would be much harder to quell.
These inconsistencies make it impossible for American military leaders and diplomats to effectively plan and organize their efforts, while further alienating our allies who have begun casting about for more reliable partners and more sensible policies. We are losing our ability to effectively shape the behavior of world leaders to whom we look for assistance, counsel and moral support.
That’s not putting America first. It’s putting us squarely at the back of the line … and utterly all alone. It is imperative that we rebuild the trust that we are quickly losing, and that starts with consistent messaging.
SOTU silence is deafening
It also matters to a very large degree what President Trump didn’t say in his SOTU address. He didn’t call out China
for their encroachments in the South China Sea, their rapid and nearly unchecked advances in Africa, and their continued bullying of regional neighbors.
He didn’t note Russia’s bellicosity on the European continent or in cyberspace, their persistent threats to the territorial integrity of Ukraine and their efforts to undermine the European Union, not to mention their interference in Western election processes.
He failed to cite the degree to which his unencumbered embrace of Saudi Arabia has made Yemen a far more dangerous place than it already was, Qatar a far more critical player in Middle East security, and — in the wake of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi — press freedom far more endangered.
Other than once again chiding NATO over defense spending (and no, President Trump is not single-handedly responsible for the increases some allies have made to spending), he never espoused the importance of alliances and partnerships that not only lend legitimacy to many overseas missions but also contribute greatly to battlefield effectiveness.
And not once did he talk about trying to find a peaceful, diplomatic solution to ending the brutal civil war in Syria
— a civil war that has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands and flung many more thousands into refuge in the region and across Europe. The only time he mentioned the war-torn country was to say he was bringing troops home from a mission even their commanders admit is not finished.
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As Americans consider the President’s words and think about what they mean for national security in 2019, it’s clear that there is no overarching set of principles driving the President’s policies. Instead, cherry-picking who plays by the rules and who gets put in the penalty box will, for at least another year, define Presidential pursuits.
This approach underserves the American people — indeed, it endangers them. Haphazard and incongruous uses of American power and influence will continue to allow our adversaries to manipulate the President and our allies and partners to ignore him. We need a coherent policy process that analytically points out and corrects these dangerous tendencies, or else they’ll continue to weaken American influence and leadership on the world stage.