Foreign Policy Takes a Back Seat in Trump’s First State of the Union

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Cipher Brief experts found President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union speech light on detail and substance. Trump promised to defeat ISIS, keep pressure on North Korea, and keep Guantanamo Bay open, among a grab bag of briefly mentioned national security issues – ideas which most of our experts embraced, though it left them asking “how?”

Lt. Gen. (ret) Jim Clapper, former Director of National Intelligence

Trump really didn’t say anything new. In fact, I thought he was restrained, or maybe just tired…a little “low energy.” There was no real direct threat to North Korea, no “rocket man,” “fire and fury,” etc. I thought his several references to heroes in the gallery, and then push a priority, was an effective technique. I always prefer the Teleprompter Trump to the real (Tweet) Trump, and this speech was no exception.

Although he spoke strongly about our adversaries and threats to our security, unsurprisingly, no naming and shaming Russia. The strange indifference to the threat posed by Russia continues.

Lt. Gen. (ret) Guy C. Swan III, AUSA Vice President

A couple of quick thoughts and impressions on the president’s State of the Union Address – with emphasis on national security.

In my view, the president made a strong statement that the security of the U.S. is best preserved through strength. As he put it, “unmatched power” is the critical key to preserving peace by deterring adversaries. This is, in many ways, a continuation of the traditional view of American military power while also serving as an indirect criticism of the previous administration’s approach to defense policy. There was a noticeable, yet not unexpected, lack of discussion of “soft power” or diplomatic power.

Many in the U.S. military and the defense industrial base will welcome the president’s call to end sequestration of the defense budget. Clearly, this is easier said than done (or it would have already been achieved). If this is to be accomplished, the President will have to put the weight of his office behind this legislative challenge in order to counter or balance similar calls to ease budget caps on domestic spending.

The president’s call to modernize the U.S. nuclear deterrent was a clear warning to nuclear adversaries such as Russia, Iran, and North Korea. This effort is already underway in the Secretary of Defense’s nuclear posture review, but will now have increased emphasis with the President’s endorsement.

The president took credit for significant defeats of ISIS in Iraq and Syria through the 60-plus nation counter-ISIS coalition – a coalition effort that was actually gathered during the latter years of the Obama administration. Nonetheless, it was clear from the president’s remarks that maintaining such a “grand coalition” is the most effective way to ultimately defeating ISIS in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Finally, the president reaffirmed his support for the often misunderstood and legally-challenged status of terrorists as “unlawful enemy combatants.” Accompanying this endorsement was his call for the continued use of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Realizing that the continued existence of “Gitmo,” the president was wise to direct a full review by the Secretary of Defense of overall U.S. detainee policy.

Overall, a strong performance by President Trump.

Nick Fishwick, former British Foreign Service.

It’s odd for a foreigner sympathetic to the U.S. to comment on President Trump’s address, because what you won’t find is much of a mention of any foreigners sympathetic to the U.S.

No Japan, no Britain, no France, no NATO.

What also seems lacking is a recognizable U.S. foreign policy. Mr. Trump makes clear and perfectly defensible points about the need for the U.S. to stay strong to defend its security.

But I would have been interested to hear his strategy for dealing with China and Russia, who get no more than a mention, and who may be pursuing thought-through regional strategies that the West, led by the U.S., may find uncomfortable. I expect that countries like these need a response that has a bit more to it than spending huge amounts on the U.S. defense budget.

Mr. Trump quite rightly reminds us that the last year has seen big reverses for ISIS. But as we have seen in the UK (and elsewhere) over the past 12 months, that does not mean the end of domestic Islamist terrorism.

We Afghan vets will be pleased to see his continued commitment to Afghanistan, though the references to Guantanamo and detention of terrorists will make some of us in Europe nervous.

On the whole, there was not a vast amount in Mr. Trump’s passages on security that were surprising or even contentious. But Atlanticists who have been looking for an American lead are still looking.

Amb. Joseph DeTrani, former Special envoy for Six Party Talks, on North Korea

President Trump accurately spoke of the nuclear and missile threat to the U.S. and made it clear that our policy will continue to be “maximum pressure.” He was very critical of prior administrations for being complacent and offering concessions. Those administrations that worked on the 1994 Agreed Framework and the 2005 Joint Statement would take exception with the comment that they were complacent …. They tried but couldn’t convince North Korea to stop seeking a nuclear capability.

That’s a reality – North Korea for decades has been pursuing this objective. We had moments of momentary success, but in the final analysis, North Korea was determined to have their own nuclear weapons capability.

The president accurately and compassionately mentioned Otto Warmbier and the story of defector Ji Song Ho. Good for him mentioning these two powerful stories.

The president made it clear that the U.S. had total resolve in addressing the North Korea nuclear threat, using maximum pressure, which was not further defined. It’s obvious, however, that sanctions, joint military exercises with the introduction of strategic assets and more missile defense deployments will continue to be our approach for dealing with North Korea.

Steve Hall, former member of CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service

I was disappointed with the foreign policy elements of President Trump’s State of the Union speech. Just a quick tally on the topics: counterterrorism, if you include the comment on recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, received four mentions. Iran was mentioned once. Interestingly, Latin America – Cuba and Venezuela, which are communist states and autocracies – got a mention. North Korea, although there was a lot of theater involved with the stories that were told, got one mention.

But Russia and China, who are in my view the only actual existential threats to the United States, got one combined mention. So if the president is to be taken in terms of what he considers the most serious threats by what he mentioned, he’s living 15 years in the past. There is no doubt that counterterrorism is a significant threat to the world order, but ISIS is not an existential threat to the U.S. – Russia and China are. And he chose for obvious domestic political reasons to give them very short shrift. That will not go unnoticed in both Beijing in Moscow. So I found that disappointing.

Overall, as a political theater matter, the president did well enough, which he often does in those set pieces. But if you just look at the policy implications of the foreign policy parts of that, I would give him a C- at best.

Mary Beth Long, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs

Couched in a conservative review of his accomplishment and desires for the nation, the president spent as much time on the domestic necessities of a strong and secure America — a growing economy, immigration reform with enhanced border security, and funding our military and the end to sequestration — as he did on U.S foreign policy.

On foreign policy, there were no surprises. The most emotional moment of his speech was when he introduced Otto Warmbier’s family and recounted how that young man was returned to the U.S nearly dead and brutalized by North Korean regime, reminding Americans of that country’s disdain for its own people, for Christianity and for basic human rights. The president refrained from baiting the North Korean leader this time.

He stated that U.S foreign assistance will be shared with allies only, which does not represent any change as far as I am aware but may indicate a willingness to depart from historical amounts for certain countries and more attention to be paid on its use by recipients.

As for his accomplishments abroad, the president pointed out that ISIS has lost its territory and dreams of a physical caliphate, at least for now – and that Congress has spoken unanimously on Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

But neither of these will be enough to resolve the ongoing issues there. Notably, the president didn’t take the opportunity to remind us that ISIS and its ilk are still very much a threat, as is the continued instability in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and in the Middle East. He did announce that GITMO will remain open and ready to receive terrorists.

Finally, while the president reaffirmed his support for Iranians seeking freedom, there was no real mention our other strategic adversaries: Russia and Iran (nor of the increasing threat posed by cyber intrusions or attempts to manipulate our social media).

There were very few interesting sound bites for replay, and I think foreign listeners will find him appearing more presidential than he has been in some of his previous speeches. Whether this means we may be seeing fewer less scripted moments remains to be seen.

Amb. James Jeffrey, former ambassador to Iraq and Turkey

The foreign policy challenge President Trump faced going into SOTU speech was to give coherence, to many skeptical Americans, to the geopolitical challenges that his National Security Policy and National Defense Policy documents issued in last month laid out: threats to the U.S. global role and dominance by near peer competitors (Russia, China) and regional challengers (Iran, North Korea, Islamic terror).

And he faced three specific issues in making his case: his reluctance to bind together America’s actions and interests in any overarching “Global Order” or system; personal reluctance to condemn Russia’s particularly egregious assault on America’s interests; questions of his character, from the above reluctance on Russia, to ability to live up to his “formal words” in his informal but decisive specific actions, and to uncertain administrative competence to “run the foreign policy trains on time.”

He got a C. He singled out Russia and China as “rivals” but did not try to explain how they were challenging the U.S. or why pushing back is important, and not a word on Russia’s extraordinary interference in the 2016 election.

Rather he devoted more of his foreign policy time to his response to ISIS and Iran – the former by this point largely defeated, and neither ever a serious threat directly to the U.S. Most of the rest of the foreign policy segment was on North Korea, which is a serious threat to the U.S. but not on same scale as Russia or China. He provided no details on the U.S. response to North Korea beyond affirming he would not repeat mistakes of the past and would undertake a campaign of maximum pressure.

Specifics on other foreign policy problems were sparse, other than emphasis on building up U.S. nuclear and conventional military forces. Other foreign policy tools were largely ignored. No mention of any role of diplomacy and only two passing references to our global network of partners and allies—a nod to the anti-ISIS Coalition, and praise to Afghan forces.

Rather he harped on those states that voted in the UN General Assembly against the U.S. Jerusalem decision and threatened to restructure foreign aid to only reward friends, i.e. those who support us in the UN.

Not only did he not make reference to our global system, the international collective security order, or the democratic, rule-of-law values that undergird it, but once again lashed out at “decades of unfair trade deals.”

That said, while the speech was certainly nationalistic and America-specific, it avoided the in-your-face “America First” rhetoric that characterized his Inaugural Address.

America’s allies, given this address, the Davos speech, and the low expectations the outside world often has of Trump, will breathe a sigh of relief.

John McLaughlin, former Acting Director of the CIA

On the surface, this resembled an almost normal, if not very distinguished, State of the Union speech. If you knew nothing about President Trump, you might see it that way while wondering about the odd moments, such as a standing ovation for keeping Guantanamo prison open. But we’ve learned that when President Trump is reading from a teleprompter we can’t be sure it’s really him – or whether a tweet in the morning will up-end much of what he said. It will be unusual if that doesn’t happen.

On national security, the speech was startlingly thin, mostly a recitation of familiar themes without new approaches. North Korea is a threat and we are putting maximum pressure on them – sure, but are we getting any traction and what’s our plan?

We’ve taken back much of ISIS’s territory – agreed, but President Obama too was slowly squeezing ISIS without a big troop increase and Trump can now say it was all on his watch. And what will do about ISIS regrouping outside the region?

He also called on Congress to improve the Iran nuclear agreement – OK but he called on them to do that back in November and nothing happened.

Russia was briefly mentioned, but there was no commitment to keep them out of our next election, and earlier today the White House refused to implement Russia sanctions Congress has enacted.

Then there was an urging to increase in our nuclear weapons, as though we are in some sort of race that if won will make us more secure.

Overall, the speech will not be remembered for anything said on the national security front.

Michael Morell, former Acting Director of the CIA

Foreign policy/national security got less time than in most previous SOTUs. Perhaps that is a reflection of the president’s priority on focusing on problems here at home. It is certainly the strong sense of his political base — let’s fix our problems rather than other nation’s problems.

The president did not break any new ground. He did not advocate for anything that he has not previously advocated, whether it is more defense spending, a desire to keep the prison at Gitmo open, or the need to invest in our nuclear deterrent.

The foreign policy/national security portion of the speech, like the rest of it, was devoid of extremes. What he said about the world, with only a couple of exceptions (such as the Iran nuclear deal) was what many foreign policy experts on both sides of the aisle would say.

He stuck to the script, with one exception, inserting hyperbole, when he talked about ISIS. Indeed, he talked about defeating ISIS outside of Iraq and Syria in many places, which is not accurate. And, he went off script to say that the ISIS caliphate was recently very large, which again is not accurate. But, such moments of hyperbole were rare, as they were in the entire speech.

Perhaps most interesting was the focus on human rights. There was more discussion of human rights in North Korea than there was on the North’s strategic weapons program. There was more talk about human rights in Iran than there was on Iran’s destabilizing behavior in the Middle East.

Todd Rosenblum, former Obama DHS & Pentagon official, on Guantanamo Bay

The president’s pledge to keep open the detention center at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba is not a new position for the U.S. Government. The detention center already was going to stay open for many years, as President Obama came to conclude one year after he assumed office.

The unresolvable conundrum is our inability to move many key detainees into the U.S. judicial system. The evidence gathered against these hardened threats was acquired either during enhanced interrogations or without available witnesses.

Because of decisions made in the early and mid-2000s, these people are in legal limbo. We cannot try them and we cannot release them. There is no option but to hold them outside U.S. territory. The President’s statement acknowledges this reality.

The president’s call for expanding existing walls on our southern border would help reduce the flow of economic migrants crossing into the country in-between formal ports-of-entry.

But more walls would do little to curb drug and other dangerous goods flows into the United States via our nine formal land ports-of-entry along our southern border.

The kind of immigration reform we need to improve our ability to detect and interdict contraband at our border is to give the vast majority of border crossers a legal means to enter and leave the country. If we give economic migrants temporary, legal status, we can free up our border patrol and customs enforcement officers to focus on traffickers and other real threats.

This story was updated 31 January 2018 with Nick Fishwick’s contribution.


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