Ten days ago, US President Donald Trump delivered his first State of the Union (SOTU) address. Last year, he had spoken before the US Congress, in a joint session, a few weeks after being sworn into office as the 45th president of the United States.
On 1 February, he tweeted that his first SOTU was delivered “from the heart”, thanking the 45 million Americans who watched him, saying it was a record number.
According to Trump, the SOTU is strong and the economic achievements of his first year in office have been remarkable. On immigration issues, he tried to convey the message that he would be open to any proposals to reform the immigration system, but without compromising the promises he had made to his electoral base.
In this respect, he called for ending the Green Card lottery system, and called, instead, for a merit-based system. On the other hand, he thanked both chambers for passing the Tax Reform Bill, and called for an ambitious programme to modernise America’s infrastructure at a cost of $1.5 trillion.
He called on both Republicans as well as Democrats to join hands to build an America that is “strong and proud”. Maybe this part was the high point in this SOTU address, and will define it in comparison with others.
If President Trump was positive and forthcoming dealing with domestic questions, when it came to foreign policy, and the Middle East in particular, his tone changed and proved more combative.
In line with the new strategic and defence postures of the United States under his administration, he singled out Russia and China as powers that could undermine the national interests of the United States. In this context, he mentioned that the US would begin modernising its nuclear arsenal, a promise that would surely lead to a nuclear arms race among the three great powers.
He dealt with both North Korea and Iran. On the former, his tone was less aggressive and there were no threats. However, the tone and substance changed for the latter.
Beginning from the last quarter of 2017, American attitudes hardened towards Iran, which became enemy number one in US strategic thinking on the Middle East. It should be recalled that President Trump declined to certify to the US Congress that Iran is honouring its commitments according to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed in July 2015 between the P5+1 group and Iran.
The JCPOA was the signature foreign policy achievement of the Obama administration. The basic premise was to engage the Iranians instead of confronting them militarily, as the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu has advocated. In fact, Trump’s position concerning Iran has completely aligned with that of Israel that calls for an open confrontation with Iran everywhere in the Middle East till it forsakes its anti-Israeli policies and recognises the state of Israel, something that is not expected to happen as long as the present Iranian regime remains in power.
Judging from Trump’s SOTU address, we can say that his administration’s strategy in the Middle East is the other side of the coin of Israel’s strategy; namely, playing up security concerns and future threats to Israeli and American interests in the region in order to relegate all other Middle East questions — like the peace process, for example — to the back burner.
SOTU 2018 did not include any reference to the Palestinian issue nor to any new American ideas for relaunching peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The only concrete reference was mentioning the decision of recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, part of the speech that was widely applauded, without toning down the American position in this regard to take into account the strong reactions this decision provoked worldwide.
On the contrary, President Trump implicitly asked the US Congress to cut American foreign assistance to countries that voted at the United Nations against what he termed “an American sovereign decision”. Although it is too early to discern how the US Congress will react to the idea, one thing is certain — the present US administration is reverting to worn-out tactics that caused the United States to lose friends in the past.
The case of Egypt in the 1950s and 1960s is an example that should not be lost on Washington. It remains to be seen whether the Trump administration will push for further cuts in economic assistance to Egypt, and whether it will release the suspended sum of $190 million in military assistance to Cairo, or subject Egypt for further cuts and suspensions of aid and military sales.
As far as the Palestinian Authority is concerned, the US administration has already decided to cut financial aid in addition to cutting financial assistance to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) that has provided food and education for millions of Palestinian refugees in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, the innocent victims of the establishment of the state of Israel and the failure of the international community to bring them back to their homes in Palestine.
SOTU 2018 alarmingly failed to take into account human tragedies in the Middle East, instead dwelling on confronting Iran, on the one hand, and fighting extremism and terrorism on the other. It failed completely to take into consideration that one basis of the expansion of Iranian influence in the region is the absence of a just and comprehensive solution in accordance with UN resolutions to the Palestinian problem.
An acknowledgement on the part of the Trump administration of the two-state solution could help greatly in stemming both ever expanding Iranian influence in the Middle East and extremism and terrorism in the Arab world.
SOTU 2018 brought no good news to the Arab world, including the Palestinians.
Heading into the Arab Summit next month in Saudi Arabia, Arab leaders should take this into account. Peace and security in the Middle East do not appear close at hand. The least we expect from Arab leaders is not to align their countries to American positions in the region as expounded in SOTU 2018.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly