US President Donald Trump delivered his second State of the Union address last Tuesday, 5 February, almost a week after it was originally scheduled.
The postponement was due to the shutdown of the federal government, unprecedented in its duration. Never before has the federal government remained paralysed for 35 days.
What a difference a year makes in American politics. SOTU 2019 was delivered in front of a House of Representatives under a Democratic majority thanks to the results of the midterm elections in November that resulted in a divided government in Washington.
Last year, former speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican, had presided over SOTU 2018, whereas the one who held the gavel in 2019 was Nancy Pelosi (Democrat, California).
If political realities have drastically changed in Washington, the fact remains that, as far as the Middle East is concerned, there are no marked differences from the first SOTU for President Trump.
For the past two years, and from day one in the Oval Office, the US president has been talking of the “ultimate deal” that would lead the Palestinians and the Israelis back to the negotiating table in order to reach an agreement that would bring to an end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
This time around, President Trump did not refer to the prospects of peace in the Middle East. He once again reaffirmed the strategic priorities of his administration in the region on two fronts.
On the one hand, confrontation with Iran. And on the other, the defeat of the Islamic State group. Confronting Iran seems to be the guiding American priority.
When Trump delivered his first SOTU, the United States was still a signatory to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iranian nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration, and signed on July 2015 by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany.
In between January 2018 and February 2019, the American position took a radical turn. Last 8 May, President Trump announced the withdrawal of the United States from JCPOA, thus rendering great service to the extreme right government of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu who has made his government’s confrontation with Iran central to Israeli foreign policy while continuing his creeping annexation of the West Bank, rendering the two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict moot.
SOTU 2019 confirmed to the last few doubters that the “ultimate deal” only pays lip service to the cause of peace in the Middle East.
The major drive for American foreign policy for the foreseeable future will centre around containment of Iran and its regional support groups.
Nothing proves this better than the remarks that Mike Pompeo delivered at the American University in Cairo in January during his first visit to Egypt since becoming US secretary of state last year, replacing Rex Tillerson.
Pompeo made confronting Iran the axis of America’s Middle Eastern policy. In this respect, he talked about a regional alliance, NATO-like, made up of the two Arab countries that have signed peace treaties with Israel, Egypt and Jordan, and the state members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (possibly without Kuwait).
In the meantime, the US administration and Poland surprised the Arab world with their joint announcement last month that they would be hosting a ministerial in Warsaw for peace and security in the Middle East.
The news came during the tour Pompeo made in the Middle East. To drive the message home, Netanyahu, the hawk of hawks in the Israeli political establishment, commented that the Warsaw meeting’s main objective is to confront Iran.
Two weeks ago, the Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Al-Safadi, hosted five Arab foreign ministers in an informal meeting to discuss the prevailing situation in the Middle East.
The participants included his counterparts from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. There was no official communique as to the results of the talks.
However, the remarks of Pompeo that he made a few days later to an American news outlet could help us shed some light on the possible thrust of the talks.
The US secretary of state made it clear that the American strategy of forming a regional alliance to deal with Iranian “threats” and destabilising policies in the wider region (“the Middle East and the Gulf”) are afoot.
SOTU 2019 has sent a clear message to Arab countries. Do not expect the “ultimate deal” anytime soon, if ever. The United States has already entered the pre-presidential elections cycle; the American withdrawal from Syria, announced by Trump in December, is on track (the last American troops in Syria would go home by the end of April); the defeat of the Islamic State group and its caliphate would be announced sooner rather than later; and forget about an Israeli withdrawal from East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the rest of the occupied Arab territories.
If there was any doubt following SOTU 2018 about the true intentions of the Trump administration, as far as major Arab and Palestinian questions are concerned, SOTU 2019 definitely laid them to rest.
Trump’s policy agenda represents a tremendous challenge to Arab countries, particularly those that Washington keeps calling “our Arab allies and partners”.
* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 February, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: SOTU 2019