A SOTU in abnormal times

Hussein Haridy , Tuesday 11 Feb 2020

The polarisation on display this week in Washington, amid Trump’s election year State of the Union address, is unprecedented in modern American history, writes Hussein Haridy

President Donald Trump waves as he and first lady Melania Trump, left, walk from Marine One to board Air Force One, Friday, Feb. 14, 2020, at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., en route to their Mar-a-Largo estate in Florida AP

US President Donald Trump delivered his third State of the Union address Tuesday, 5 February, less than 24 hours before his acquittal by the Senate in his impeachment trial. The American president delivered his speech before a highly-divided House of Representatives due to the impeachment initiated by House Democrats. The political scene in Washington has never been as polarised, and the fact that the year 2020 is a presidential election year, where the incumbent will seek re-election, has not made things smoother or more cordial. 

The confrontation between the president and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi came to a head before not only millions of Americans watching the annual address, but also the whole world. The president, before delivering his remarks, handed a copy of his address to both Vice President Mike Pence, in his capacity as Senate Speaker, and to Pelosi, who extended her arm to shake hands with president Trump, though the latter turned away and started delivering his address. 

During the time the president took to finish his 90-minute address, it was obvious that Pelosi was not at all convinced by what the president was saying, even though he avoided touching on the impeachment process. After finishing his speech, Pelosi tore her copy of the address. For the millions following, inside the US and around the world, this was an unprecedented scene that demonstrated the depth of the political gridlock in Washington DC. Another aspect of this ongoing crisis was the fact that Democratic Representatives kept very silent while on the Republican side they were not shy to demonstrate that they stand by the president in face of fierce battering by Democrats.

Pelosi explained her uncustomary gesture afterwards by saying that she shredded her copy of the State of the Union address because President Trump shredded the truth in his speech.

The near consensus in the United States is that neither the president and the Republicans nor Pelosi and the Democrats are willing to turn the page of the impeachment episode and start working together for the public interest. Many US Congressmen recalled more serene times in similar circumstances 21 years ago when an impeached president, Bill Clinton, read his State of the Union address in 1999 in more civil atmosphere.

This year, the State of the Union address sounded like a campaign speech to rally the hard-core base of President Trump, and to try to persuade independents and the undecided of the accomplishments of the first three years of the Trump administration. As Brookings Institution Fellow John Hudak said in analysing the speech, it was “powerful and effective in advancing his [Trump’s] political interests.” Without fact-checking the content of the address, the accomplishments that President Trump highlighted, particularly in relation to the economy and international trade relations of the United States, are impressive.

As if by coincidence, the Labour Department announced that the American economy created more than 200,000 jobs in January 2020 — more than expected. The unemployment rate hovers around 3.5 per cent, the lowest level in 50 years. In his address, Trump stressed that during his three years in office his administration has created seven million jobs. He added that 12,000 factories have opened in these three years after the loss of 60,000 factories under the two previous administrations.

To broaden the political impact of the address, he emphasised that the unemployment rate for African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans and Asian-Americans has reached an all-time low. Meanwhile, stock markets have soared, adding more than $12 trillion to American national wealth.

Trump was careful to drive home a special message to the American electorate; namely, that the agenda of his administration has been “relentlessly pro-worker, pro-family, pro-growth and, most of all, pro-American.” His message was of an incumbent who is trying to reach voters other than his base, regardless of gender, ethnic background or colour. This message was delivered in parallel to an attack on those who uphold socialist ideas, referring, implicitly, to the left wing in the Democratic Party and presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders who is leading the presidential race among the other 10 Democratic candidates for the party’s official nomination this summer in Milwaukee.

In the field of national security and foreign policy, President Trump adopted a triumphant tone. He boasted that, “our military is completely built, with its power being unmatched anywhere in the world… not even close.” He pointed out that the United States invested a record $2.2 trillion in the US military in the last three years.

In the realm of foreign policy, he referred to the peace plan announced 28 January at the White House to bring peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis. He called this plan a “ground breaking plan for peace…” He added that we should recognise that all previous plans have failed, and accordingly, “we must be determined and creative in order to stabilise the region and give millions of young people the chance to realise a better future.” It is interesting to note in passing that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo released a statement 4 February in which he said that the United States has “maintained unprecedented support for our ally Israel”.

It has not been customary to invite foreign leaders to attend the annual State of the Union address. However, the Trump administration, in a further show of support, invited Juan Guaido, the “interim president of Venezuela”, to attend. President Trump reaffirmed his administration’s resolve to support the hopes of Cubans, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans to “restore democracy” in their respective lands.

President Trump also reaffirmed his desire to end US involvement in Middle Eastern wars, while singling out Iran, laying down three conditions for the Iranian government in order to end the “maximum pressure” strategy his administration has adopted since it withdrew in May 2018 from the Iranian nuclear accord of 2015. These conditions relate to Iran’s nuclear programme, adding that its regional “destabilisation” activities must stop along with “spreading terror, death and destruction”. He spoke about the US assassination of former Al-Quds Force commander General Qassem Suleimani, painting him as “the Iranian regime’s most ruthless butcher, a monster who murdered or wounded thousands of American service members in Iraq”.

On Afghanistan, the US president made clear that the United States would withdraw from America’s longest war, but without setting a precise date. He said that it is “not our function to serve other nations as a law enforcement agency”.

On the other hand, the US president left no doubt that the United States would continue combating what he termed “radical Islamic terrorism”, while taking credit for the targeted killing of former leader of the Islamic State group, Abu Bakr Al-Bagdhadi.

As far as the Middle East is concerned, President Trump reaffirmed in his State of the Union address the positions of his administration. But these positions have not provided permanent political and diplomatic solutions to the conflicts raging across the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf.

SOTU 2020 will be remembered not for its realistic assessment of the state of America today, but rather as an introduction to Trump’s re-election campaign in an America in turmoil.

These are abnormal times in the United States.

The question is, who will deliver the State of the Union address next year, and whether that person is capable of ending the deep polarisation that has afflicted the American polity and society of late.

The writer is former assistant foreign minister.


*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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