President Donald Trump’s 2018 State of the Union address focused mostly on domestic issues, leaving comparatively little time for matters of foreign policy.
When he did talk about the world, Trump mostly covered familiar ground. He boasted about America’s successful military campaign against ISIS. He highlighted his displeasure with the Iran nuclear deal. He outlined the brutality of the North Korean regime. He reaffirmed his desire to further fund the military. And he also discussed his new executive order to keep Guantanamo open, a point he’s raised in the past but never acted on until now.
But there’s a lot that Trump left out. He glossed over what is supposedly America’s top security priority: confronting great powers like China and Russia. He barely touched on America’s oldest and newest “forever wars” in Afghanistan and Syria, respectively. He also didn’t discuss Yemen, even though the president has escalated America’s involvement in the Saudi-led war.
Trump also failed to mention the growing US campaign in Somalia or increased US military presence in Africa, even though the US lost four troops there last year. And unlike previous presidents, he made no mention of America’s values and his plans to promote them throughout the world.
These omissions, and the likely motivations behind them, are important. What follows is a brief guide to the themes and issues Trump missed — and why he might’ve missed them.
Trump didn’t go in-depth on Russia and China
Trump’s decision not to discuss China and Russia in detail was arguably the most glaring foreign policy oversight of his address since the Trump administration has said that America’s top security concern is the threat from great powers.
“Though we will continue to prosecute the campaign against terrorists that we are engaged in today,” Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said when he unveiled the Trump administration’s official defense strategy earlier this month, “Great Power competition, not terrorism, is now the primary focus of US national security.”
And hours before Trump’s speech on Tuesday, Vice Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Paul Selva — the nation’s second-highest ranking military official — emphasized the joint China and Russia threat during an interview with reporters.
So it’s puzzling that Trump only mentioned the two countries once during the whole speech, in a passing reference to world challenges, but there may be a few reasons why.
For one, Trump has said he needs China’s help to handle his tense relationship with North Korea. Trump may have thought that bad-mouthing Beijing during such a high-profile speech would put this assistance at risk.
As for Russia, there’s a criminal investigation underway into whether or not the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow to win the 2016 presidential election. Mentioning Russia prominently during the speech would have brought that contentious issue to the fore.
Still, the fact the president spent mere seconds on what his administration says is America’s top security concern is both odd and worrisome.
Trump didn’t talk about the US’s deepening involvement in Afghanistan and Syria
Trump escalated the US’s longest-ever war in Afghanistan and has now further embroiled the US in Syria with no withdrawal timeline — but you wouldn’t know it listening to the president’s speech.
Let’s start with Syria. Last April, Trump ordered the US Navy to fire 59 missiles at a base that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad had used to launch a chemical attack that killed more than 80 people. That was the first time the US intentionally bombed a Syrian regime target since the country’s civil war began in 2011.
Additionally, a September 2017 Pentagon report showed that the US had 1,720 troops in Syria. That’s up from the 94 troops — yes, 94 — that the US had in Syria at the same point in 2016.
And as recently as January 17, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that the US would remain in Syria indefinitely in order to ensure ISIS’s defeat and counter Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East.
It’s somewhat understandable that Trump didn’t want to highlight this — but it’s hard to comprehend why he spent so little time on Afghanistan.
“As of a few months ago, our warriors in Afghanistan have new rules of engagement,” Trump said during his State of the Union address. “Along with their heroic Afghan partners, our military is no longer undermined by artificial timelines, and we no longer tell our enemies our plans.”
That’s it. He didn’t rationalize why he sent around 4,000 more troops into a 16-year war that the US couldn’t win with 100,000 fighters at one point. He also provided no strategy for how those new service members will help Afghan forces in their effort to defeat the nearly 20 terrorist groups in the country — especially the Taliban, ISIS, and al-Qaeda.
As a candidate, Trump promised not to involve the US further in wars. As president, he did the opposite — and he chose not to acknowledge that obvious tension during his address.
Trump also never mentioned America’s involvement in growing, newer conflicts
Before Trump took office, the US helped Saudi Arabia bomb Yemen and assisted the Somali government in fighting off a dangerous terrorist group. But since he became president, Trump has increased America’s involvement in both of these conflicts — and made zero mention of them in his address.
Let’s start with Yemen. One of Trump’s first actions as president was to authorize a special operations raid in the country targeting an al-Qaeda leader on January 29, 2017. The SEALs killed 14 militants, but 23 civilians also died, including women and children. Senior Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens, a US Navy SEAL, was also killed in the raid.
Trump also dramatically increased US support for Saudi Arabia’s brutal war in Yemen. Since March 2015, the conflict has claimed more than 13,500 civilian lives, with more than 900,000 suffering from the worst cholera outbreak in modern history. Roughly 20 million Yemenis need humanitarian assistance to meet basic needs — including food and water.
In 2017, the Pentagon more than doubled US refueling support — providing about 480,000 gallons of aviation fuel — for Saudi planes that have hit schools, hospitals, and other civilian targets across the country. That alone cost the US more than $1 million in the fiscal year that ended last September, a 140 percent increase over the previous year.
As for Somalia, the Pentagon says the US military is in Somalia to help stabilize the country by supporting Somali and other African forces.
The US now has 500 troops in the country in 2017 — more than twice the amount it had in 2016. Some of the new troops are special operators who advise local forces in their fight against the terrorist group al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda affiliate. The US also added two new military headquarters in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu.
But that’s not all. The US conducted 34 airstrikes in the country during the last six months of 2017. That’s more than double the number of US airstrikes in Somalia for all of 2016, and a clear increase in America’s military involvement there.
The Somalia operation is just the biggest example of the US military’s expanding efforts in Africa. The US conducts around 10 missions per day on the continent, or around 3,500 per year. It’s not without risk: Four US troops died in Niger last October during a mission, leading to a political firestorm here at home.
So, to be clear, US troops died in Yemen and Africa last year — and Trump made no reference to these conflicts during the State of the Union address.
Trump didn’t say what America stands for in the world
Most presidents use the State of the Union to outline what they think the US’s role in the world should be.
“America will stand with the allies of freedom to support democratic movements in the Middle East and beyond, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world,” President George W. Bush said in his 2006 address.
“I believe in a smarter kind of American leadership. We lead best when we combine military power with strong diplomacy, when we leverage our power with coalition building when we don’t let our fears blind us to the opportunities that this new century presents,” President Barack Obama stated during his 2015 speech.
We heard none of that from Trump in his speech on Tuesday night. There was no soaring rhetoric about working with allies to make the world a better place, no discussion about global priorities, and no discussion about the values the US wants to promote throughout the world, although he did claim that there’s a “yearning [in] every human soul to live in freedom.”
In a way, the State of the Union was the most “America First” speech Trump has ever given — it focused mostly on the homeland, with little mention of the US’s biggest foreign policy and national security issues.
That may be the message Trump wanted to convey — but he left a lot out in the process.