Trump speech suggests more muscular Middle East policy, less conflict
In his first speech to Congress, US President Donald Trump offered a glimpse into how his Middle East policy is shaping up.
The speech, late on Tuesday, emphasized a determination to fight Daesh and a more hawkish policy toward Iran, but a vague strategy on achieving these goals.
Unlike his short combative 16-minute inaugural address on Jan. 20, Trump struck by most accounts a more presidential and conciliatory tone.
His 45-minute address to Congress defied the pattern of low expectations that accompanies his speeches. Even his most fiery critics such as CNN commentator Van Jones said parts of Trump’s speech were “the most extraordinary moments you have ever seen in American politics.”
After paying tribute to a Navy SEAL who died in Yemen, Trump “became president of the United States in that moment, period,” said Jones.
Others, however, questioned how detailed Trump’s speech was in some key areas.
Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Arab News that the “speech was somewhat light” on foreign-policy detail.
It did, however, depart at times from the doctrine of the last Republican President George W. Bush, added Schanzer.
“There is a crucial point (highlighted by Trump) that this administration does not want to pour money into trying to change the Middle East — a significant departure from the Bush doctrine,” he said.
Trump repeated his campaign line “we’ve spent trillions of dollars overseas, while our infrastructure at home has so badly crumbled.”
The president, who built his career in the real estate business, also emphasized the theme of sharing the burden. “We expect our partners, whether in NATO, in the Middle East, or the Pacific — to take a direct and meaningful role in both strategic and military operations, and pay their fair share of the cost,” Trump said.
His administration is currently reviewing recommendations by the Pentagon on fighting Daesh, which could include safe zones funded by regional players in Syria without, however, conflicting with the Syrian government of Bashar Assad.
Schanzer highlighted three themes and priorities on the Middle East from Trump’s speech. “Countering Iran’s nuclear program and regional aggression; strong alliance with Israel; the fight against extremism, primarily in the form of the Islamic State,” he said, using another term for the Daesh extremist group.
In the speech, Trump referenced Iran sanctions after its ballistic missile test and hosting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month as key accomplishments of the early days of his presidency. “I have also imposed new sanctions on entities and individuals who support Iran’s ballistic missile program, and reaffirmed our unbreakable alliance with the State of Israel,” he said.
In the speech, Trump overruled his new national security adviser General H.R. McMaster in using the term “radical Islamic terrorism” and not “violent extremism.”
A new travel ban
Trump laid the ground for a second executive order that would ban immigration from key Middle Eastern countries. The order, according to CNN, has been rescheduled for later this week to keep the focus on the coverage of the speech, and allow room for enough public attention on the order itself. Associated Press also reported that Iraq is not expected to be on the new list of countries part of the ban, potentially drawing the list down to six countries: Syria, Iran, Libya, Sudan, Somalia and Yemen.
Trump rallied the public behind his new executive order, saying “we cannot allow a beachhead of terrorism to form inside America — we cannot allow our nation to become a sanctuary for extremists.”
The president also reiterated his plan to “to demolish and destroy” Daesh, acknowledging that many of their victims are Muslims. He called Daesh a “network of lawless savages that have slaughtered Muslims and Christians, and men, women, and children of all faiths and beliefs.”
Schanzer noted that Trump tried to distinguish himself from the last two presidents, Bush and Barack Obama. “Trump sees the lessons of the war in Iraq as instructive, in terms of avoiding quagmires that cost America blood and treasure.”
That “doesn’t necessarily imply an aversion to conflict, but he is maintaining some room for flexibility,” Schanzer added.
Trump’s approach on foreign policy was one balancing between cautious interventionism in displaying more strength while prioritizing a more protectionist and isolationist trajectory if needed.
“My job is not to represent the world. My job is to represent the United States of America. But we know that America is better off, when there is less conflict — not more,” the 45th president said.