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Donald Trump's speech launched the next stage of the War on Terror

The US president threatened to cut aid to America's enemies - but few know which countries are on the list

    US President Donald Trump at Tuesday night's State of the Union speech
    US President Donald Trump at Tuesday night's State of the Union speech (Photo: Getty Images)

    Rarely in modern American history has a US president prepared to deliver his annual State of the Union address against a background as inauspicious as that faced this week by Donald Trump.

    Many years have passed since a president last faced such a sharp partisan divide and talk of special prosecutors, scandal and possible impeachment.

    It was 1998 when Bill Clinton stepped up to perform this annual piece of political theatre just as news broke of his relationship with a young White House intern, and 1974 when Richard Nixon spoke to a Congress that would effectively force him from office barely six months later.

    This year, however, the Trump rhetoric was most reminiscent of another president, George W Bush, whose 2002 speech in the wake of September 11 took aim at the “axis of evil” of Iran, Iraq and North Korea. Mr Trump effectively launched the next and most contentious stage of Mr Bush’s War on Terror.

    “As we strengthen friendships around the world, we are also restoring clarity about our adversaries,” he declared. That clarity was evident as he flailed Iran and said Kim Jong-un’s “reckless pursuit of nuclear missiles could very soon threaten our homeland”.

    To illustrate what he termed “the depraved character of the North Korean regime”, the president had invited Otto Warmbier’s parents, brother and sister to watch his speech from the balcony. The Jewish college student was detained while on a study trip to North Korea, subjected to a show trial and, despite being released early from a 15-year sentence, died within days of his return to the United States last June following brutal mistreatment by his captors.

    Bipartisanship matters little to Mr Trump, although his political survival may come to depend upon it if, as appears possible, his next State of the Union is delivered to a Democrat-controlled Congress following this November’s mid-term elections.

    And beyond the boilerplate talk of “extending an open hand to work with members of both parties”, Mr Trump did offer words on one subject – Israel – which might normally be expected to unite politicians across the aisle.

    The president trumpeted his decision last month to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the US Embassy there. The policy, though repeatedly delayed by his three immediate predecessors, has traditionally commanded strong support among both congressional Democrats and Republicans.

    It was condemned by the United Nations, prompting Mr Trump to call on Tuesday for new legislation restricting American international aid to those countries he termed “friends”.

    “Dozens of countries voted in the United Nations General Assembly against America’s sovereign right to make this recognition,” the president said – wrongly implying that it was the United States’ right to make the decision, rather than the decision itself, that was overwhelmingly opposed.

    “American foreign-assistance dollars,” Mr Trump went on to declare, should “always serve American interests, and only go to friends of America, not enemies of America.”

    But the criteria by which the president wishes to judge “friends of America” are not clear and it is entirely possible that his chaotic administration may not yet know that itself.

    And it was a measure of the president’s divisiveness that some Democrats remained seated and did not join the standing ovation with which Republicans greeted Mr Trump’s words on Israel.

    The Democratic leader in the Senate, Chuck Schumer – who will be the first Jewish Majority Leader if his part captures control of the chamber in November – last month boasted that he advised the president to make the Jerusalem recognition decision. But many equally strong supporters of Israel, such as Senator Dianne Feinstein, refused to back Mr Trump’s move.

    Like Mr Clinton, the president may eventually escape his enemies to serve out the remainder of his term. Mr Clinton used that time gainfully: at Camp David in 2000 he came closer than any other president to negotiating a deal between Israelis and Palestinians to bring an end to the conflict.

    It might be wise, however, not to hold out such high hopes for Mr Trump.

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