New York Times (Editorial)
March 1, 2017
President Trump’s first address to Congress checked nearly all the domestic policy boxes that dominated his public statements during the campaign and his few short weeks in the White House — jobs, immigration, taxes, medical care. But there was one gaping omission: foreign policy. Here was his moment to assert understanding of the foreign policy threats and opportunities facing the country, and his vision of his role as commander in chief with a wider understanding of America’s role in the world. He failed to grasp it.
He boasted about plans to throw billions more dollars at the Pentagon, without a word about how this will advance national security. He spoke at length about his plans to bar and expel immigrants he regards as dangerous, but far less about the very real threats from the Islamic State and other extremist groups. There was no coherent idea about major continuing challenges in Afghanistan and Syria. In fact, the words Afghanistan and Syria — as well as North Korea (with its growing nuclear arsenal) — never crossed his lips. China and Iran got passing mention; climate change — a major global challenge — zero.
So how did he deploy his energies and display his concern? Chiefly by recognizing the widow of Senior Chief Petty Officer William Owens, a member of the Navy SEALs who was killed in January in a botched raid in Yemen, which Mr. Trump blamed on “the generals.”
Thus ensued several agonizing minutes as Carryn Owens struggled gamely to keep her composure while the audience gave her a standing ovation to which Mr. Trump added a grotesque coda, announcing that Chief Owens would be “very happy because I think he just broke a record” by drawing sustained applause.
None of this could erase the fact that Chief Owens’s father had earlier demanded an investigation into what he called a “stupid mission” and refused to meet Mr. Trump. Or that Mr. Trump, asked about Mr. Owens’s criticism on “Fox & Friends,” refused to accept responsibility, as most commanders in chief would do, and instead blamed the military commanders for the operation.
Alarmingly, Mr. Trump appears to have no plans or strategy in parts of the world where American troops are actively engaged. In Afghanistan, where the United States has been at war for 15 years, 8,400 American troops are now on active duty, and officers there are asking for a few thousand more. American forces are playing a crucial role in helping Iraqi troops recapture Mosul from ISIS and are assisting Kurdish and Arab forces in Syria to retake Raqqa, capital of ISIS’ self-declared caliphate. Mr. Trump said he had asked for a plan “to demolish and destroy” ISIS, and on Monday the Pentagon presented him with new options, including deploying a few hundred more troops in both countries.
If Mr. Trump has ideas about how to deal with an increasingly aggressive Russia, which the Pentagon considers America’s No. 1 threat, or China, which has become more assertive in the South China Sea, he did not divulge them. One plausible possibility is that Mr. Trump’s murky ties to Russia, which intelligence agencies say hacked the Democrats in an effort to skew the election on his behalf, has crippled his ability to even talk about Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and its destabilizing behavior in Ukraine, Syria and Europe.
It was thus a momentary relief when Mr. Trump said, “We strongly support NATO,” backing off his earlier ambivalence toward the alliance. But he then trivialized the moment by insisting that his push for the allies to increase military spending had produced instant results and “the money is pouring in.” (That isn’t the way NATO operates, and there isn’t any money pouring in anywhere.)
Presidential speeches are not as a rule detailed action plans, but a chance to illuminate priorities. On foreign policy, Mr. Trump has been hampered by his inexperience, narrow, protectionist impulses, and an erratic managing style that has made it hard to attract a capable staff. He has kept the focus on domestic issues, where he and his supporters seem more comfortable. As to America’s role in the world and its multiple challenges, he seems clueless and, at best, insecure.
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