After nearly two years of his presidency that has stunned and shaken the world, US President Donald Trump used his second speech at the annual UN General Assembly meeting on Tuesday to deliver the same message: America will act alone to serve its own interests.
Acting like he was speaking at a local rally in front of his own supporters, Trump opened his speech by praising his achievements. “Today, I stand before the United Nations General Assembly to share the extraordinary progress we’ve made,” he said. “In less than two years, my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country.”
There was some muted laughter from the room. “So true,” Trump said. “I didn’t expect that reaction, but that’s OK,” he said, prompting louder laughter.
He then went on to praise stances he took over the past two years, without offering any new initiatives: Trump promised to continue negotiating denuclearisation with North Korea while maintaining sanctions, sharply attacked Iran and its government, said little about the Middle East peace process except for praising his decision to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to occupied Jerusalem, and vowed that he would not continue to provide foreign aid without getting a payback.
“In the Middle East, our new approach is yielding great strides and very historic change,” Trump said. He added that following his trip to Saudi Arabia, a few months after he took office in January 2017, the oil-rich Gulf countries opened a new centre to target terrorist financing, and “took more responsibility for fighting terrorism and extremism and their own region.”
He also praised the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Qatar for pledging millions of dollars to aid the people of Syria and Yemen. He added that the United States was working with the Gulf Cooperation Council, Jordan, and Egypt “to establish a strategic alliance so Middle Eastern nations can advance security and stability across their home region”.
Noting the progress made in ending the presence of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, Trump said Washington would continue to work with friends and allies to deny radical Islamist terrorists funding, territory or means of infiltrating US borders.
As for Syria, the US president said the goal must be the de-escalation of military conflict along with a political solution that honours the interests of the Syrian people.
Although he did not repeat an old-standing US position demanding the ouster of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, he urged the UN to lead a peace process that would put an end to the ongoing war in Syria.
Meanwhile, he repeated his threat to use military force if chemical weapons were used by the Al-Assad regime in a possible military offensive against the last enclave extremists hold in the border region of Idlib.
His harshest words, however, were saved for Iran. “Every solution to the humanitarian crisis in Syria must also include a strategy to address the brutal regime that has fuelled and financed the war in Syria. Iran’s leaders sew chaos, death and disruption,” he said.
Trump charged that Tehran had no respect for its neighbours, borders or the sovereign rights of nations. “Instead, they plunder the nation’s resources to enrich themselves and to spread mayhem across the Middle East and far beyond,” he added.
Fuelling claims by Tehran that Washington is seeking regime change, Trump praised the Iranian people for protesting against the regime’s policies. “The Iranian people are rightly outraged that their leaders have embezzled billions of dollars from the treasury, seized valuable portions and looted the religious endowments to line their own pockets, and to send their proxies to wage war.”
He again defended his decision to withdraw from the “horrible” 2015 Iran nuclear deal and re-impose nuclear sanctions.
The deal was signed by the former Obama administration, together with Russia, China and the European Union. Trump claimed that “the Iran deal was a windfall for Iran’s leaders. In the year since the deal [was] reached, the military budget [of Iran] grew nearly 40 per cent.
The dictatorship used the funds to build nuclear capable missiles, increase internal repression, finance terrorism and fund havoc and slaughter in Syria and Yemen,” he said.
He noted that additional sanctions will be imposed on Iran on 5 November, “and more will follow. We are working with countries that import Iranian crude oil to cut their purchases substantially.”
Contrary to his comprising language on North Korea, Trump said: “We cannot allow the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism to possess the planet’s most dangerous weapons. We cannot allow a regime that chants ‘Death to America’ and threatens Israel with annihilation to possess the means to deliver a nuclear warhead to any city on earth.”
He called upon “all nations to isolate Iran’s regime as long as its aggression continues and we ask all nations to support Iran’s people as they struggle to reclaim their religious and righteous destiny.”
Turning to the Middle East peace process, Trump claimed his decision to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to occupied Jerusalem earlier this year was “another significant step forward” towards recognising the right of sovereign states to determine their own capital.
The majority of the world countries criticised the US move, seeing it as a violation of UN Security Council resolutions related to Palestine, determining in advance the outcome of a thorny issue that should have been decided through negotiations between Palestine and Israel.
Trump claimed that “the United States is committed to a future of peace and stability in the region, including peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. That aim has advanced, not harmed by acknowledging the obvious facts.” Palestinians and Arab countries were deeply concerned that the next step by Trump after the decision on Jerusalem was to call for an end to the Palestinian refugee plight, declaring that millions of refugees should be settled in their host countries, such as Jordan and Lebanon, alleging that this was also an “obvious fact”.
The US president said that “America’s policy of principled realism means that we will not be held hostage to old, discredited ideology and experts that have been proven wrong over the years.”
Meanwhile, and despite praising Saudi Arabia and UAE minutes earlier for the joint war against terrorism, Trump lashed out at the oil producing consortium OPEC, in which the two countries are among the most powerful members.
“OPEC and OPEC nations are ripping off the rest of the world and I don’t like it. Nobody should like it. We defend many of these nations for nothing, and then they take advantage of us by giving us high oil prices. We want them to stop raising prices, we want them to start lowering prices,” Trump said.
He also asked oil-rich nations “to contribute substantially to military protection from now on. We are not going to put up with these horrible prices much longer.”
Trump also vowed that the US was going to take “a hard look” at the foreign aid it sends to other countries and the financial support it provides to international organisations.
“Few give anything to us. That is why we are taking a hard look at US foreign assistance. We will examine what is working, what is not working and whether the countries who receive our dollars and our protection also have our interests at heart,” Trump said.
“Moving forward we are only going to give foreign aid to those who respect us and frankly our — our friends. And we expect other countries to pay their fair share for the cost of their defence.”
Promising to make the UN “more effective and accountable”, Trump also vowed to change how the US funds the international body’s various programmes, and where US dollars are spent. “Only when each of us does our part and contributes our share can we realise the UN’s highest aspirations,” Trump said.
President Trump, claiming the UN Human Rights Council had become “a grave embarrassment to this institution”, said the US would not return to it without real reform and would provide neither support nor recognition to the International Criminal Court for similar reasons.
He added, “We will never surrender America’s sovereignty to an unelected, unaccountable, global bureaucracy.”
Trump’s comments, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement, “are music to the ears of tyrants and war criminals”. Richard Dicker, director of HRW’s international justice programme, said Trump’s “opposition to justice for victims of mass slaughter is yet another retreat by this administration on human rights. But this attack on international justice will backfire, just as it did under the Bush administration.”
In a play on his campaign slogan, President Trump said Tuesday that a global migration crisis can be resolved by making every country “great again”. He said the US would not sign onto a global migration pact, saying individual nations should instead set their own policies.
Trump also told world leaders that he would continue to renegotiate what he described as “broken and bad trade deals”. Citing his bids to renegotiate trade deals around the world, Trump said that “many nations in this hall will agree the world trading system is in dire need of change.”
Singling out China for its trade abuses and theft of US intellectual property, Trump said “we will no longer tolerate such abuse”. He added: “We will not allow our workers to be victimised, our companies to be cheated.”
Stressing he still has “great respect and affection” for Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trump said “America will always act in our national interests.”
* A version of this article appears in print in the 27 September 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Trump lauds himself at UN