Analysis 02-08-2019


Trump’s 2019 State of the Union Speech

Undoubtedly the framers of the US Constitution had no idea that the constitutionally mandated State of the Union Message would one day become such a political event.

The 2019 SOTUS event was no different.  Aside from the political wrangling about when and where it would be held,

the one-week delay in the speech only helped President Trump.  According to polling done by CBS news, three out of four Americans liked the speech and 71% now believe there is a problem at the southern border.  The polling showed that while the Democrats remain skeptical, Trump made serious inroads with the all-important independent voters who usually decide elections.

Parts of the speech was surprisingly conciliatory and bipartisan.  In fact, Speaker of the House Pelosi at one time even had to signal to her backbenchers to stand and applaud the president.

Trump’s attempted to sound bipartisan.  He said, “The agenda I will lay out this evening is not a Republican agenda or a Democrat agenda. It is the agenda of the American people.”

 “Many of us campaigned on the same core promises: to defend American jobs and demand fair trade for American workers; to rebuild and revitalize our Nation’s infrastructure; to reduce the price of healthcare and prescription drugs; to create an immigration system that is safe, lawful, modern and secure; and to pursue a foreign policy that puts America’s interests first.”

The speech highlighted three areas: fair trade, immigration, and foreign policy.

The foreign policy part of the speech had no new initiatives.

Although Congress is pushing legislation to prevent Trump from leaving Syria and Afghanistan, the president made it clear he intended to continue the withdrawal.  He stated, “Great nations do not fight endless wars.”

He outlined the cost to the US since 9-11.  “Our brave troops have now been fighting in the Middle East for almost 19 years. In Afghanistan and Iraq, nearly 7,000 American heroes have given their lives. More than 52,000 Americans have been badly wounded. We have spent more than $7 trillion in the Middle East.

Trump made it clear it was time to leave.  “When I took office, ISIS controlled more than 20,000 square miles in Iraq and Syria. Today, we have liberated virtually all of that territory from the grip of these bloodthirsty killers.”

 “Now, as we work with our allies to destroy the remnants of ISIS, it is time to give our brave warriors in Syria a warm welcome home.”

He added, “In Afghanistan, my Administration is holding constructive talks with a number of Afghan groups, including the Taliban. As we make progress in these negotiations, we will be able to reduce our troop presence and focus on counter-terrorism. We do not know whether we will achieve an agreement — but we do know that after two decades of war, the hour has come to at least try for peace.”

These comments contrasted with an earlier vote by the US Senate that conflicted with the Trump policy of withdrawal.

In a bipartisan 77 to 23 votes, the Senate passed and sent to the House the “Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act,” which includes a provision from Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell warning against a “precipitous” withdrawal of troops from the area.

 “It would recognize the dangers of a precipitous withdrawal from either conflict and highlight the need for diplomatic engagement and political solutions to the underlying conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan,” McConnell said of his provision to the bill on the Senate floor last week.

The rest of the bill, sponsored by Florida Republican Marco Rubio, would impose new sanctions on Syria’s bank and those supporting Syria’s government while increasing military aid to Israel and Jordan. It also includes a controversial measure that divided Democrats, which would allow states and local governments to refuse contracts to entities involved in the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions movement that seeks to punish Israel.

Although the legislation warned of a “precipitous withdrawal,” it didn’t have the force of law – probably because an attempt by the US Congress to force US troops to stay in Syria and Afghanistan would be politically and legally fraught with danger.

If the Congress tried to keep US forces in these two countries and something happened that took American lives, Congress would find itself being blamed.

Second, the US Constitution makes it clear that the President is the Commander-in-Chief of the US military and in charge of foreign policy.  Any attempt by Congress to direct the conflicts or decide the troop levels in Syria and Afghanistan would probably be found unconstitutional in the courts.

The only legislative tool available to Congress would be to declare war on ISIS and the Taliban – a very unlikely option since the US Congress has avoided declarations of war since WWII.

The result is an innocuous “warning” that allows Congress to say, “I told you so” without facing any consequences.

Trump also made it clear that Iran remained a major threat.  The president said, “My Administration has acted decisively to confront the world’s leading state sponsor of terror: the radical regime in Iran.”

 “To ensure this corrupt dictatorship never acquires nuclear weapons, I withdrew the United States from the disastrous Iran nuclear deal. And last fall, we put in place the toughest sanctions ever imposed on a country.”

Although they weren’t mentioned, this made it clear that countering Iran would remain US policy whether it was in Yemen or Venezuela.

While Iran remains a major concern for Trump, he made it clear that there is progress with North Korea.  Trump noted, “As part of a bold new diplomacy, we continue our historic push for peace on the Korean Peninsula. Our hostages have come home, nuclear testing has stopped, and there has not been a missile launch in 15 months. If I had not been elected President of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea with potentially millions of people killed. Much work remains to be done, but my relationship with Kim Jong Un is a good one. And Chairman Kim and I will meet again on February 27 and 28 in Vietnam.” Trump’s claims about war with South Korea was met with criticism as one of his self-congratulation gestures.

In one change, an organization that has frequently been criticized by Trump was praised in the SOTUS.  Trump praised the nations of NATO by noting, “We are also getting other nations to pay their fair share. For years, the United States was being treated very unfairly by NATO — but now we have secured a $100 billion increase in defense spending from NATO allies.”

Trump also added two points of interest for NATO nations – missile defense and the INF treaty with Russia that Trump has pulled out of.  He said, “As part of our military build-up, the United States is developing a state-of-the-art Missile Defense System.”

He also accused Russia of violating the INF treaty in the past.  He said, “For example, decades ago the United States entered into a treaty with Russia in which we agreed to limit and reduce our missile capabilities. While we followed the agreement to the letter, Russia repeatedly violated its terms. That is why I announced that the United States is officially withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF Treaty.”

 “Perhaps we can negotiate a different agreement, adding China and others, or perhaps we can’t — in which case, we will outspend and out-innovate all others by far.”

No statement received widely differing responses as Trump’s comments in reference to events in Venezuela.  He said, “We stand with the Venezuelan people in their noble quest for freedom — and we condemn the brutality of the Maduro regime, whose socialist policies have turned that nation from being the wealthiest in South America into a state of abject poverty and despair.”

What was controversial was what he said next – eliciting verbal shouts of approval from some, while receiving stony silence from others.  Trump veered from Venezuelan socialism to talk of American socialism, “Here, in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country. America was founded on liberty and independence — not government coercion, domination, and control. We are born free, and we will stay free. Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.

Trump used support for Israel as a wrap up to his speech.  He said, “My Administration recognized the true capital of Israel — and proudly opened the American Embassy in Jerusalem.”

In reference to Iran, he said, “We will not avert our eyes from a regime that chants death to America and threatens genocide against the Jewish people. We must never ignore the vile poison of anti-Semitism, or those who spread its venomous creed. With one voice, we must confront this hatred anywhere and everywhere it occurs.”

He went on to mention the attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue and recognized two guests who were survivors of the Nazi concentration camps.  Then mentioning the rescue of these and other concentration camp survivors by American soldiers in 1945, he closed with an appeal to American greatness.

 “Why did they do it? They did it for America — they did it for us.”

 “Everything that has come since — our triumph over communism, our giant leaps of science and discovery, our unrivaled progress toward equality and justice — all of it is possible thanks to the blood and tears and courage and vision of the Americans who came before.”


In the end, what did the SOTUS accomplish?

There weren’t any dramatic legislative initiatives in the speech.  Everything mentioned by Trump had been covered in previous campaign events.

No doubt, Trump’s popularity will take a bump up – for a little while.  State of the Union speeches always help the president for a week or so before they are forgotten by most voters.

Although more conciliatory and bipartisan than campaign speeches, he refused to back down where there has been a difference of opinion between the Democrats and him.  He made it clear he was pulling American forces out of Syria and Afghanistan, despite any congressional votes.  He also repudiated the drift towards socialism by many in the Democratic Party.

In the end, it will go the same way as previous SOTUS events – drama beforehand, only to be quickly forgotten afterwards.



The Way Forward for the United States in a Post-INF World

By Thomas Callender

Heritage Foundation

February 1, 2019

After five years of failed attempts to get Russia to return to compliance with its Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty obligations and verifiably destroy its 9M729 missile system, the United States officially announced its intentions to withdraw from the treaty. While the U.S. should continue to encourage the Russian government to return to compliance with the INF Treaty, in parallel, it should develop and field new low-yield nuclear weapons as well as improved conventional ground-based cruise missile systems and cruise missile defenses. These actions would better deter Russian use of low-yield nuclear weapons and better defend America’s NATO allies from Russian cruise missile threats.

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The President Understands Afghanistan: It Is Time to Just Leave

By Doug Bandow

Cato Institute

February 4, 2019

As he began his presidency Donald Trump had the right idea about Afghanistan: “Let’s get out.” However, he surrounded himself with conventional thinkers who thwarted his wishes and refused to provide him with withdrawal options. After two years of additional, unnecessary American deaths, he apparently again is pushing for troop cut-backs. Perhaps for this reason, administration officials are negotiating with the Taliban seeking a peace agreement that will allow an American pullout. The Kabul government, which purports to be both an essential U.S. ally and legitimate representative of the Afghan people, is on the outside looking in. Nevertheless, progress supposedly has been made. But who will hold the Taliban to its promises, the president’s hawkish critics ask? Whatever the treaty’s terms, enforcement would require a continued U.S. military presence. Once American troops go home, they won’t return, absent overwhelming need. Saving the Kabul authorities won’t count. Thus, if the administration fulfills the president’s wish to pull out America’s 14,000 military personnel, the ability to hold the insurgents to their promises will disappear. That doesn’t matter. The troops should come home. Quickly and permanently.

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Finishing Strong: Seeking a Proper Exit from Afghanistan

By Daniel F. Runde and Earl Anthony Wayne

Center for Strategic and International Studies

February 6, 2019

A precipitous U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan would endanger many of the social, political, economic, and health gains that have been achieved in Afghanistan over nearly 20 years. Afghanistan has a myriad of problems, including corruption, violence, and poverty, but these challenges often overshadow improvements in mortality rates, media and cellular access, tax collection, and women and girls’ education and political freedoms, among others. To prevent these gains from dissipating, the international community should encourage the Afghan government to meet certain governance benchmarks and continue on its path to self-reliance. The United States and its international allies should also consider a gradual withdrawal of troops, funding for the Afghan security forces, and economic assistance, based on a timeline that reflects facts on the ground and progress on peace negotiations.

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Welcome to the Hypersonic Arms Race

By Richard M. Harrison

American Foreign Policy Council

January 19, 2019

These days, with Capitol Hill divided and at odds with the White House, the opportunities for political compromise seem dimmer than ever. However, all concerned can still agree that an emboldened Russia and increasingly aggressive China represent a threat to the national security of the United States, and to the safety of our allies. So, it should be troubling to both sides of the aisle that these two nations are rapidly developing weapons against which the United States currently has no defense. According to a recent study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), “China and Russia are pursuing hypersonic weapons because their speed, altitude, and maneuverability may defeat most missile defense systems, and they may be used to improve long-range conventional and nuclear strike capabilities. There are no existing countermeasures.” Indeed, hypersonics represent a very real and rapidly maturing threat. These systems fall into two categories: hypersonic cruise missiles, which are propelled by jet or rockets, and hypersonic boost-glide vehicles that are launched from a ballistic missile. These highly maneuverable missiles can carry conventional or nuclear payloads and can travel at more than five times the speed of sound.

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Trump’s Foreign Policy Critics Are Losing

By Walter Russell Mead

Hudson Institute

February 5, 2019

Is President Trump losing control of the foreign-policy agenda? Last week the administration suffered a stinging political defeat as the Senate voted 68-23 to advance a bill that criticizes his plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and Afghanistan. This comes on the heels of Congress’s refusal to accede to Mr. Trump’s demands for further funds to fortify the U.S.-Mexico border and the Senate’s December vote to end U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia’s operations in Yemen. It is now clear the president’s foreign-policy and national-security approach faces increasing and often bipartisan congressional opposition. Yet the White House shows no sign of backtracking. Far from meeting his critics halfway, Mr. Trump and his foreign-policy team announced progress in Afghanistan negotiations that opponents call a surrender, doubled down on plans to withdraw troops from Syria, announced its impending withdrawal from an arms-control agreement many consider foundational to the post-Cold War security order in Europe, and attacked the judgment of his senior intelligence officials. The administration also advanced an aggressive hemispheric strategy aimed not only at Venezuela, but also at Cuba and Nicaragua—the other two regimes in what national security adviser John Bolton calls the “troika of tyranny.”

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