Trump declares US ‘ready to lead’ even as he warns of engagements’ costs

Posted at 10:39 PM, Feb 28, 2017
and last updated 2017-02-28 22:39:06-05

President Donald Trump said in his first address to Congress that the US was “once again ready to lead” internationally amid concerns that his ‘America First’ policy and moves to curtail the State Department budget will do the opposite.

“Our allies will find that America is once again ready to lead,” Trump said in an address that was largely dominated by domestic concerns. “All the nations of the world — friend or foe — will find that America is strong, America is proud, and America is free.”

Trump touted sanctions he slapped on Iran for a missile test, reaffirmed “our unbreakable alliance with the State of Israel,” and said he would “demolish and destroy” ISIS.

Even as he spoke of “direct, robust and meaningful engagement with the world,” though, he signaled that he doesn’t see some of that international engagement as a benefit to the US, but as a direct cost.

Trump reiterated the need for NATO and other allies to contribute to shared security costs. The George W. Bush and Obama administrations also waged an effort to get greater international contributions, but the current president has threatened to move away from the alliance to an unprecedented degree. On Tuesday, however, he definitively walked back those threats, saying, “We strongly support NATO, an alliance forged through the bonds of two World Wars.”

But he added that “our partners must meet their financial obligations,” Trump said. And he said that “we’ve spent trillions of dollars overseas, while our infrastructure at home has so badly crumbled.”

Trump’s address to the joint session of Congress came days after the White House announced that it would boost the Pentagon budget by $54 billion next year, in large part with cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency and the State Department. Reductions to the State Department could be close to 38%, according to administration sources.

“America has spent approximately $6 trillion in the Middle East, all this while our infrastructure at home is crumbling,” Trump said. “With this $6 trillion we could have rebuilt our country — twice. And maybe even three times if we had people who had the ability to negotiate.”

The proposal to scale back international funding has sparked pushback from both Democrats and Republicans who say that it misses the crucial role this funding plays in the security of America and its citizens. They say, too, that this kind of withdrawal will undermine US standing.

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, addressed the proposed cuts on the Senate floor earlier Tuesday, saying that, “If America decides to withdraw from the world, if America decides to step back, if America declines and our influence around the world becomes less palpable, what will replace it?”

Trump did not mention many simmering foreign policy challenges in the 75-minute speech in which health care, immigration and economic issues featured more significantly.

He didn’t refer to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Chinese assertiveness in Asia-Pacific waters. He also neglected to mention an issue of immediate concern to the national security community — Russia’s hacks during the US election — or the longer-term concern of climate change.

But Trump did return to campaign themes on foreign policy besides the need for NATO to pay more, saying that the US “is willing to find new friends” — a reference that many took to mean Russia, with which the President has often said he wanted to improve ties.

“America is friends today with former enemies,” Trump told Congress Tuesday night. “Some of our closest allies, decades ago, fought on the opposite side of these world wars.”