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As understood by the Constitution’s architects, the State of the Union address is intended to give the president the opportunity to inform Congress of his views on how the country was doing, what problems the country was facing, and on how those problems might be addressed. The speech is the president’s constitutional duty, designed to force him to provide a reasoned account from his institutional perspective of the country’s needs, both domestic and foreign.
How did President Trump measure up in his first State of the Union address? There were the usual sections boasting of accomplishments and the typical extended list of policy issues and proposals. Regarding national security in particular, the president did not short change the topic in terms of length, spending as much or more time on it as he did on the economy, taxes, jobs, and even immigration. But a closer look at the speech reveals that the president fell short on his obligation to give Congress, and the citizens watching, the substantive particulars one would want when it comes to key foreign and defense affairs.
Although President Trump devoted approximately 150 lines in his address to national security, some 40 percent of the time went to the personal stories of Army Sgt. Justin Peck in Syria, the Warmbier family’s loss of a son to North Korea jailers, and North Korean defector Ji Seong Ho. Each was worth telling and moving to be sure. But these stories came at the expense of covering the host of other pressing issues the president mentioned.
As a result, a list of important topics — defense spending, the North Korean nuclear program, the Iranian nuclear agreement, the war in Afghanistan, terrorism, the regional dictatorships of Cuba and Venezuela, Guantanamo and terrorist detentions, nuclear modernization, and the rising competition with China and Russia — received cursory attention.
By contrast, the president’s speech contained a lengthy analysis of the problems with the country’s current immigration system and what to do about it. If the president’s attention to these details is reflective of his policy priorities, then the comparatively minimal amount of detail given to key national security issues strongly suggests where the president’s head is not.
For example, given the amount of warlike rhetoric coming from both the White House and North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, one might have expected to hear more from the president than just the obvious fact that the regime is “depraved” and a potential “nuclear threat.”
Similarly, a striking omission was any American plans for Syria and Iraq now that ISIS has been largely defeated on those battlefields. It’s perfectly reasonable for the president to tout his administration’s success when it comes to fighting ISIS, but as we learned from success of “the surge” in Iraq in 2007 to 2008, what follows the victory on the streets and the battlefield is equally important.
While rightly touting the change from the previous administration in caveats and timelines for fighting in Afghanistan, the president went no further, leaving the country wondering what the administration’s longer term strategy for the nation’s longest foreign war might be.
The administration’s views about what’s next regarding the Iranian nuclear agreement also remain unclear. In just one sentence, the president called out the deal as terrible but then punted to Capitol Hill, “asking the Congress to address” its flaws. What the White House wants, even broadly put, was left unsaid.
But perhaps the most striking feature of the address in national security terms was the short shrift given the multifaceted problem sets posed by China and Russia. Mentioned only once and lumped in with the dangers posed by rogue regimes and terrorist groups, the president’s bromide (correct as it might be) is “that weakness is the surest path to conflict, and unmatched power is the surest means our of defense.”
The minimal attention given to China and Russia is notable for the fact that the administration’s national security strategy and the Pentagon’s national defense strategy, both just recently published, emphasize the turn in American grand strategy to meet the challenge of the “great power competition” with these two states. So pronounced, it seems incumbent on the president to provide more about what this competition might mean going forward.
A State of the Union address cannot of course cover every inch of the policy world with depth. The administration could argue that, with the release of the two strategy documents, it has left a record of how it intends to address many of these issues. But the address before Congress is a unique opportunity to reach the broader public who won’t be reading those documents. The country is facing as complex a security environment as it has faced in decades. It needed to hear more about those challenges, and what’s to be done.
This article was originally published by The Hill.
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