President Trump gives the 2019 State of the Union address before Congress. (CSPAN/You Tube/Screengrab)
“Great nations do not fight endless wars,” declared President Donald Trump to bipartisan applause belied by many of the assembled lawmakers’ actual voting records.
The State of the Union address is often where presidential promises go to die. This is especially true once at least one house of Congress is controlled by the opposition party. Let us hope Trump’s stand against forever war—unmistakable, if not as bold as I’d originally hoped—is an exception to the rule.
“Our brave troops have now been fighting in the Middle East for almost 19 years,” Trump said in the highlight of his speech. “In Afghanistan and Iraq, nearly 7,000 American heroes have given their lives. More than 52,000 Americans have been badly wounded. We have spent more than $7 trillion in the Middle East.”
Trump has cited these sad statistics many times. In recent weeks, he appears to have renewed his commitment to acting on them. It was therefore noteworthy he repeated his calls to withdraw from Syria and begin to draw down troops in Afghanistan, our country’s longest war.
“As a candidate for president, I loudly pledged a new approach,” Trump said. And here it was: Declare victory and bring our courageous men and women home.
Trump crowed that the United States and its allies against ISIS “have liberated virtually all of that territory from the grip of these bloodthirsty monsters.” The difference is what he said next.“Now, as we work with our allies to destroy the remnants of ISIS, it is time to give our brave warriors in Syria a warm welcome home.”
In Afghanistan, Trump pledged talks with the Taliban that would have caused a Republican meltdown under former President Barack Obama. There too Trump said that “the hour has come to at least try for peace.”
Trump called for bipartisanship throughout his speech, but didn’t flinch from taking shots at the Democrats. He condemned socialism, once again in fashion among progressives. He made note of comments by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam—currently in the headlines for other reasons—in defense of late-term abortions bordering on infanticide. He was booed as he warned of the migrant caravans massing at the southern border.
While Trump credited the economic boom to the enactment of the agenda he shared with congressional Republicans—“historic” tax cuts and deregulation, energy innovation, and the repeal of the penalty enforcing Obamacare’s individual mandate, making House Speaker Nancy Pelosi hesitate to applaud low unemployment figures—his wedge issues against the Democrats were more distinctively Trumpian.
Trump defended his tariffs and urged Congress to ratify the trade pact with which he would “repeal and replace” NAFTA. He called for a robust infrastructure program and efforts to tamp down on drug prices that would only only partially be endorsed by free-market conservatives. He said he would pull out of the Middle East and guard the southern border.
The president’s apparently ad libbed endorsement of “record” legal immigration isn’t exactly what some of his more populist supporters want, though it is consistent with his rhetoric on the issue dating back to the early days of his campaign. He has given serious restrictionists a place at the table but has mostly doubled down on the politically smart yet oversimplified Republican talking point that the only immigration problem that America faces stems from its frequent illegality.
Even on foreign policy, Trump’s appeals to the nation’s war-weariness sat uneasily alongside his hawkishness on Iran and perhaps Venezuela, his junking of arms control treaties, and the unmentioned atrocities in Yemen. It is clear, however, that Trump would prefer to go down in history as a dealmaker—even a peacemaker.
“If I had not been elected president of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea,” Trump said. “Much work remains to be done, but my relationship with Kim Jong Un is a good one.”
Trump had clever lines designed to make even the sea of liberal women dressed in white in protest stand to applaud, including his tribute to their unprecedented numbers in Congress (thanks in no small part to the Resistance). But foreign policy and ending the wars gives him the best chance at a meaningful bipartisan achievement as the Democratic Party’s center of gravity shifts from Hillary Clinton to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and perhaps even Tulsi Gabbard.
Intense opposition to Trump has liberal hawks flying again too. And Trump almost certainly had more leverage to accomplish his less conventionally Republican goals when he first took office than now, when Democrats think they have him on the ropes and many GOP insiders agree.
Nevertheless, Trump made the case that renewing American greatness means summoning it to peace. That could be a winning message for a Republican candidate in 2020 too.
W. James Antle III is editor of The American Conservative.