War Stories

No “Fire and Fury”

There was less chest-thumping than usual in this State of the Union. But Trump’s foreign policy is still incoherent and dangerous.

President Donald J. Trump looks on during the State of the Union address on Tuesday in Washington.
President Donald J. Trump looks on during the State of the Union address on Tuesday in Washington. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

President Trump said little about national security in Tuesday night’s State of the Union Address, and little of what he said was new or remarkable.

One of the few eyebrow-raising remarks was his announcement that he’d just signed an order directing Secretary of Defense James Mattis “to re-examine our military detention policy and to keep open the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay.” Mattis is known to be skeptical about the extreme treatment of detainees, so the re-examination may come to naught. But Trump’s actual order, which went online during the speech, further states that “additional detainees” may be moved to Guantanamo “when lawful and necessary to protect the Nation.” This move does alter U.S. policy and could reverse the trend toward emptying the facility. Jihadis will probably also exploit the move in their propaganda.

Another startler was his request for legislation to bar foreign aid for countries that are not “America’s friends,” referring to the recent U.N. General Assembly vote condemning his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. If Congress took his request seriously, that would mean eliminating aid to four of the five biggest recipients of aid—Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, and Jordan—as well as Saudi Arabia, India, Vietnam, and several other countries that Trump has courted since taking office. (In other words, Congress won’t take this seriously.)

Otherwise, Trump’s positions were hawkish, but his rhetoric was less chest-thumping than in previous public speeches. He boasted that the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq and Syria “has liberated almost 100 percent of the territory once held by” ISIS—but he stopped short of claiming he’d won the war. He even allowed, “There is much more work to be done.”

He condemned the “cruel dictatorship of North Korea” and its “reckless pursuit of nuclear missiles,” which “could very soon threaten our homeland.” He also said, “We are waging a campaign of maximum pressure to prevent that from happening.” But he did not hurl insults at Kim Jong-un, or threaten to launch “bloody-nose” attacks on his regime, much less unleash “fire and fury” against his whole country.

Still, hours before the address, Victor Cha—an Asian specialist and former official on the National Security Council who was about to be nominated as ambassador to South Korea—published an op-ed in the Washington Post stating that he’s been dropped from consideration after disputing with Trump’s view that a preventive strike can solve the problem. Cha would have been the only Trump official with any experience in dealing with North Koreans. Unless combined with Cha’s sort of expertise, it is not at all clear how Trump’s “campaign of maximum pressure” will halt the progress in their nuclear arsenal.

Finally, there were several exaggerations or outright falsehoods. Trump said America has “turned the page on decades of unfair trade deals”—which may be true, but he hasn’t signed any new trade deals that are less unfair. In fact, Canada has stepped in to lead a new Trans-Pacific Partnership with our Asian allies after Trump withdrew from the pact—which is almost certain to hurt the U.S.’ trade position in the region.

He also repeated his call for Congress “to address the fundamental flaws in the terrible Iran nuclear deal.” As usual, he didn’t specify—and never has specified—what the flaws are, but at least he stopped short of calling for a withdrawal from the deal.

He boasted that he’d imposed “tough sanctions on the communist and socialist dictatorships in Cuba and Venezuela.” But he said nothing about his refusal, announced yesterday, to enforce a law, passed by Congress almost unanimously, to stiffen sanctions on Russia, which has done more to threaten American democracy than Cuba or Venezuela ever did.

He also said U.S. troops in Afghanistan have “new rules of engagement” with no “artificial timelines.” This too is true, but after nearly a year of massive bombing, the Taliban is no weaker and the Afghan army seems no more up to the task of self-defense.

A word about the “artificial timelines” that many officials and analysts have long criticized. It is true that when President Obama announced a troop-surge in Afghanistan in December 2009, he also announced that the surge would end in 2011. It was a mistake to announce this publicly, as it assured the Taliban that this fight wouldn’t go on forever. But the context is important. A few days before his announcement, Obama had asked his top military advisers, in a private meeting, whether they could assure him that the surge would enable the Afghan army to take the lead in a majority of provinces within 18 months. They all said it would, even though some of them knew it wouldn’t. Obama warned them that, if this didn’t happen, he would bring the surge-troops home. The advisers thought that he was bluffing; they would tell him, after 18 months had passed, that another couple of brigades, or a few more months, would get the job done, and, like most presidents in this position, he’d succumb to their pressure. But Obama kept to his word. To his mind, the counterinsurgency strategy, which had required the extra troops, wasn’t working by the military’s own standards of success. So he scaled back the troops—and the mission.

Trump has been told, and seems to believe, that his new “strategy,” which in fact isn’t so new, will enable the Afghan army to win. In a New York Times story on Tuesday, Helene Cooper cited the numerous times that U.S. commanders, presidents, and cabinet officers have declared imminent victory, or a turning of the tide, in every stage of this 16-year war. Their optimism proved delusional, and Trump’s optimism is likely to be too.

Read more in Slate about the State of the Union.