WASHINGTON – Despite his promises of a no-holds-barred administration, President Donald Trump is tiptoeing around U.S. military engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, and dialing back the threats of abandoning allies. It seems Trump is opting for an increasingly risk-averse approach to the world.
Although he vowed an aggressive new Iran posture and at one point questioned even basic U.S. policy toward China, Trump has been slow to outline policies to back up the swagger. He's curtailed his nerve-rattling rhetoric about NATO and even his pledges of new cooperation with Russia. And in his first speech to a joint session of Congress, he didn't even mention the nation's two long wars or echo the ritual declarations of American global leadership of Republican and Democratic presidents past.
"My job is not to represent the world," Trump said flatly on Tuesday evening. "My job is to represent the United States of America. But we know that America is better off when there is less conflict — not more."
Trump referenced his reluctance to embroil the United States in another war, insisting "we must learn from the mistakes of the past." But the overall impression he left was of a new leader still trying to find his footing on some of the most vexing foreign policy and international security conundrums.
Trump's opposition to new conflict is hardly a revolutionary stance. President Barack Obama promised to pull American troops out of the wars he inherited from President George W. Bush, but proved unsuccessful on each. Bush himself promulgated a "humble" foreign policy before being transformed by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
But Trump's suggestion of an American retrenchment appears deeper. His administration has proposed a 37 percent cut to State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development budgets. There are only vague indications of how he'll redirect tens of billions of dollars into new military spending.
On a night when Trump could have offered a glimpse of the future for thousands of U.S. troops deployed overseas, he said only that he was working on a plan to "demolish and destroy" the Islamic State group. He didn't reference any goal in Afghanistan, where the U.S. is helping government forces fight the Taliban. He didn't spell out plans for the Iran nuclear deal, which he once vowed to dismantle, or present a vision for Mideast peace, which he has indicated could entail an independent Palestinian state — or not.
"He's still coloring within the Obama lines," said Aaron David Miller, a Middle East expert at the Wilson Center who has advised Republican and Democratic presidents. "He's reverted to a risk-averse, America First, muscular American nationalism. And the ISIS strategy, yet to be revealed, will be Obama-plus."
In one particularly poignant moment, Trump on Tuesday evening hailed the service and sacrifice of America's men and women in uniform, and their families, praising the widow of U.S. Navy Senior Chief William "Ryan" Owens. As she teared up in a House visitor balcony, lawmakers offered their biggest cheers of the night. Owens was killed in a raid in Yemen during Trump's first days as president.
Trump danced entirely around another foreign policy elephant: Russia. While he called for the nation to "find new friends, and to forge new partnerships, where shared interests align," he provided no update on his oft-repeated ambition of closer cooperation with Moscow. It's a goal Trump has stuck to despite U.S. intelligence agencies' allegations that the Kremlin meddled in the U.S. presidential election and the Obama administration's allegations that it illegally annexed Ukrainian territory and abetted war crimes in Syria's civil war.
Trump may still engage in warmer relations with Russia, but he is already tempering his approach to China. He ruffled feathers in his presidential transition by speaking on the telephone to Taiwan's president, undermining the "One China" policy that Beijing calls non-negotiable. Trump later reaffirmed the status quo with China. On Tuesday, the world's most populous nation got a single mention in Trump's speech: criticism that the U.S. has lost 60,000 factories since Beijing joined the World Trade Organization in 2001.
Policies affecting Europe and Latin American also got short shrift in the speech, and don't appear to be changing as much as Trump has implied.
The president boasted that money was "pouring in" from NATO countries as a result of his demands that they meet defense spending obligations, without citing evidence. He has stopped suggesting that American support in the event of an attack is contingent on nations meeting the funding requirement.
Trump's rocky relationship with Mexico is overshadowing anything else he wants to do in Latin America right now. Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto canceled a trip to Washington after Trump signed a presidential order kick-starting construction of a border wall and demanding that Mexico pay for it.
Tuesday's speech reinforced the need for tighter border security and a crackdown on undocumented workers and cartel activity. Trump spoke of his "great wall," though he made no reference to who would foot the bill.
"The only way to address these problems is to listen to the Mexicans and incorporate what they have to say to make the border secure," said Peter Romero, the top American diplomat for Latin America under President Bill Clinton. "It's in their interest to secure the border, too."