President Donald Trump went to the United Nations General Assembly without his former national security adviser, the hawkish John Bolton, and delivered a speech that might be dubbed “Bolton Lite.”
Bolton was ousted after a series of disagreements, including one over Trump’s scuttled Afghanistan peace summit that would have put Taliban leaders at Camp David just days before the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks their al-Qaeda guests planned from the southwest Asian country.
The president’s annual speech before the gathering of world leaders did include some hawkish lines, but his core message to leaders in Tehran, Beijing and North Korea was far more dovish than the views of Bolton, a leading proponent of America’s post-9/11 wars and proud military interventionist.
“If you want democracy, hold onto your sovereignty. And if you want peace, love your nation,” Trump said, reading slowly and deliberately from a TelePrompter. “Wise leaders always put the good of their own people and their own country first.”
As he did in his first two General Assembly addresses, the U.S. president injected his “America first” governing philosophy into the remarks. And he again urged other countries to adopt a similar style.
“The future does not belong to globalists,” he said. “The future belongs to patriots. The future belongs to sovereign and independent nations who protect their citizens, respect their neighbors, and honor the differences that make each country special and unique. It is why the United States has embarked on an exciting program of national renewal.”
Trump claims he fired Bolton because he “disagreed strongly with many of his suggestions.” The president reportedly once quipped during an Oval Office meeting that “John has never seen a war he doesn’t like.” (Bolton claims he had offered to step down.)
He did warn Iran and countries that do business with Tehran, saying “no responsible government should subsidize Iran’s bloodlust.” He also let the entire General Assembly know his view of the global power order, calling the United States the most powerful country on the planet with the most powerful military.
‘Defend America’s interests’
What’s more, Trump lauded sanctions his administration has put in place aiming to change Iranian leaders’ actions and said those will stay in place until the government there alters its “menacing behavior.”
Though Trump was less hawkish in his UN address than Bolton on Iran, Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haas noticed an omission.
“.@realDonaldTrump UN speech missing any new diplomatic outreach to either Iran or NK, meaning risk of war with Iran continues to climb and NK will continue to increase its stockpile of nuclear weapons & missiles,” he tweeted.
Still, the president was more Candidate Trump than a Bolton hawk during large parts of the speech.
“The United States does not seek conflict with any other nation. We desire peace, cooperation and mutual gain with all,” he said before delivering a Bolton Lite warning: “But I will never fail to defend America’s interests.”
He channeled the 2016 GOP candidate who called the Afghanistan and Iraq wars launched by the George W. Bush administration “stupid.”
“America’s goal is not … endless wars, wars that never end,” he said, then expressed hope for a “brighter future in Afghanistan” and a desire to work with “partners in the Western Hemisphere” to promote “stability” in America’s backyard.
He sharply criticized China for its trade practices, saying Beijing failed to live up to promises to open its markets when it was allowed into the World Trade Organization in 2001. Rather, its government raised “market barriers” and installed a system of government subsidies for its own firms and forced foreign companies to give up “trade secrets on a grand scale.”
“As far as the United States is concerned, these days are over,” he said, later turning optimistic about a massive trade pact with Beijing that has so far frustrated him and his team. “Hopefully we can reach an agreement acceptable to both countries. I will not accept a deal that’s bad for the American people.”
‘Cruel and evil’
While Trump did not match his former national security adviser’s hawkishness on Iran and China, he did echo anti-immigration hardliners within the West Wing.
The president took aim at pro-immigration activists in the U.S. and other countries, warning of a “growing cottage industry” he described as undermining his country’s interests.
These activists “cloak themselves in the rhetoric of social justice” but put forth policies that are “cruel and evil,” Trump said, igniting critics immediately.
“This segment of the speech deserves loud condemnation. I can’t think of a precedent for a US president attacking activists from his own country at the UN,” tweeted Heather Hurlburt, a Clinton administration national security official.
“To be clear, dictators have not infrequently come to the UN and sought to discredit their domestic opposition and dissidents. For Trump’s team to put him in this category is extraordinary,” she added.
The president also had tough words for undocumented migrants, telling them “you will not be released into our country” because “as long as I’m president of the United States, we will enforce our laws and protect our borders.”
That line came a day after Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan announced his department plans to end so-called “catch and release” for Central American families arriving at the southern border.
Under a new planned DHS practice, which is slated to begin next week, migrant families who do not express a fear about returning to their home country will swiftly be returned to their native soils.
“If you make it here you will not be allowed here, you be returned home,” the president said in a quiet UN hall. “You will not be released into the country.”