Donald Trump's toned down State of the Union speech fails to soothe fears of resurgent terror, trade war with China

He’s the man every columnist loves to hate, and every cartoonist adores. Yet, President Donald Trump was reported to have got an approval of 76 percent of viewers on a CBS poll after his second “State of the Union” speech. When Trump speaks, he still aims at voters and not at the censorious crowds in front of him or behind the TV cameras. None of that, however, takes away from the fact that he is probably the most controversial US president to have ever taken a bow from the lawns of the White House.

Trump cannot complain of lack of coverage of his second State of the Union ( SOTU). The SOTU is another example of the balance of power between the White House and the Congress that underpins US democracy. The US Constitution requires that the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” In simple words, Trumpian tendencies to go it alone are checked severely and consistently since George Washington delivered his first address in 1790. Since then, the requirements of the address have only got more detailed, requiring the president to provide data beyond just budgetary information. With the coming of television and now the internet, its also now become a platform for the president to directly address the people. And that’s what Trump is best at.

US President Donald Trump at the State of the Union Address in Washington. AP

US president Donald Trump at the State of the Union address in Washington. AP

The main points in the address related to internal issues will likely gain more support from his voter base than derision. Predictably, Trump  stood firm on his demand for the Mexico border wall, warning of an impending immigration crisis. Again, the CBS poll shows that a full 72 percent of viewers approved of his immigration policy, particularly among a large (legal) immigrant population that – rightly or wrongly – sees the incoming Mexicans as a threat. Rather surprisingly, beyond a call to work together in a bipartisan manner, Trump made no reference at all to the longest shut down in US history, nor did he apologise to the hundreds of federal workers affected by it. Surprising, because the issue will come up again in a few weeks, when another shutdown looms.

Certainly, the president could boast of the uptick in the US economy, creating more jobs ( though not as much as he claimed according to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, the US has now become a net exporter of energy, brought more women into government, and Trump's ominous plans for a “Reciprocal Trade Act’ which will impose tariffs swiftly on any country, is also likely to raise his popularity if passed. His claim that he reversed decades of US policy by staring down the Chinese dragon is certainly true: for the moment.

That brings the issue to the foreign affairs segment. Trump’s policies have the potential to create instability across the world, and rebound on the US. No doubt the White House announcement that the US will “suspend its obligations” on the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987 was shrewdness itself. The INF Treaty is a key arms control deal that banned land based and cruise missiles between a range of 300 to 3,400 miles.

By announcing this suspension, Trump comes across as tough on Russia, blunting accusations of being Putin’s best bud. The announcement offers six-month window for Russia to stop testing of the new 9M729 cruise missile which the US has been saying contravenes the treaty. In fact however, this is probably a move to pull out of the treaty anyway, since there is the looming threat of Chinese missiles which are exactly in the same range. In other words, the president hit two birds with one intermediate missile. The trouble is this will ensure that Russia will go full ahead with its own programme, while China will carry on regardless, endangering one of few successful arms control treaties ever negotiated.

With regard to North Korea, Trump duly announced his next summit with the mercurial Kim Jong-un on 27 and 28 February. There is no doubt that the president scored, and scored well in this area. North Korea hasn’t tested a single missile or warhead for the past 15 months. The trouble is that Pyongyang probably did its quota of needed tests already, while experts believe that the regime continues to hone its technological capability in this area. Another issues is Trump’s commitment to “bring the troops home”: a historically charged phrase that is also likely to win him domestic support. His dislike of endless war is understandable: in Syria, because the Islamic State has apparently been defeated, and in Afghanistan, because Trump sees no value in that war. That’s where the problem is likely to start, and probably marks trouble at the end period of this presidency. The Islamic State is likely to re-group, and Pakistan is likely to continue its machinations in Afghanistan. That’s what his intelligence tells him.

It is now apparent that the assessments of US intelligence are widely divergent from that of the president. Media reports indicate frustration within the intelligence agencies with the president’s apparent preference to make his own assessments rather than listen to detailed daily briefings. Divergence is apparent in almost all of the issues listed above, including Russian interference in elections, the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the sincerity of North Korea and most of all the situation in conflict areas such as Syria and Afghanistan.

These differences were apparent most recently in the briefing by Dan Coats, Director of National Intelligence where he warned dryly that actions by the North Korean dictator were “inconsistent” with the declared support for denuclearisation. That led to a furious tirade by the president against the intelligence on a crucial TV programme aired a day before his SOTU address, where he stated baldly that intelligence agencies were often wrong. That is unfortunately true.

US intelligence has erred badly on various occasions, including on Iraq’s nuclear weapons (there were none), and often on assessments on Pakistan. But intelligence assessments anywhere can go wrong. But the public differences with intel is not the real issue. The problem is that Trump does not also believe his chiefs that Iran is adhering to its commitments under the nuclear deal made with his predecessor. It seems its not that Trump wants to bring the troops home. He wants to deploy them elsewhere.

The SOTU, though slightly toned down in terms of feistiness, is still troubling to all those who are rightly fearing the consequences of a trade war, a resurgence of terrorism, not to mention regressive immigration policies. But here’s the thing. Trump's approval ratings haven’t fluctuated much (remaining at a term average of 39 percent) though it is far lower than that of even President Obama (49 percent). Somewhat like Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Trumps rating could climb if employment continues to rise within an overall improvement of the economy. Again like Modi, his ability to talk directly to the people on issues that concern the day to day life of the people is considerable.

Fortunately, unlike Modi, the former reality TV star sees irascibility as not just a vote winner, but a technique to use in foreign policy. That has created a whole new tenor in international relations where nations are uneasy about what the US may do next. The exact jargon to describe this extremely uncertain international climate has yet to emerge.

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Updated Date: Feb 06, 2019 18:51:25 IST

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