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President Trump had the opportunity to address the UN General Assembly opening for the second time, which he used to brag and lie, says Phyllis Bennis, of the Institute for Policy Studies
GREG WILPERT: It’s The Real News Network, and I’m Greg Wilpert joining you from Baltimore.
This week is the annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly, in which the heads of state address their fellow world leaders. It was the second time around that President Trump had the opportunity to address the UN General Assembly. Last year he gave a very bellicose speech in which he threatened to totally destroy North Korea if it doesn’t dismantle its nuclear weapons program. He also emphasized that he would always put America first. This time around, he put the same theme in terms of the importance of patriotism and national sovereignty. Also, he bragged about how much he has accomplished since taking office, which generated some chuckles from the audience.
DONALD TRUMP: In less than two years, my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country. America’s- so true. [Audience laughter] Didn’t expect that reaction, but that’s OK.
GREG WILPERT: Trump also spent a significant section of his speech focusing on the Middle East. Joining me now to take a closer look at that part of Trump’s speech is Phyllis Bennis. Phyllis is the director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. She’s also the author of many books, including Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: A Primer. Thanks for joining us again, Phyllis.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Great to be with you, Greg.
GREG WILPERT: So let’s start with your overall impression of the theme of the speech. What struck you about it?
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well, I think it was rather extraordinary to hear the General Assembly diplomats burst out laughing in just the first few minutes- the first few seconds, really, of Trump’s speech when he bragged, as you said, about having accomplished more than any other administration in the history of our country. And people, I’m sure, were thinking about Abraham Lincoln, really. But you know, it was like- just his sort of dissociation from reality. And he said, I didn’t expect that reaction, but OK. You’re laughing with me, so that’s all good. So that was sort of the optics of it that framed it.
I think, though, that right from the beginning, right from that braggadocio at the very opening of his speech, he was consistent with this notion, as you mentioned earlier, Greg, the idea of sovereignty of homeland; using that kind of very evocative language for raw nationalism. Which is what he was really saying, that the whole point of the United Nations should be nations whose concern is only about themselves should come together, and then somehow they will be able to deal with everything because their concern is only about their own people. So he talked about the notion of homeland being like nowhere else on earth. And he said, we will always choose independence over global governance.
And in that context he didn’t really name Russia, but he used language that sounds very much like some of the language that Putin routinely used as he talked about the majesty of freedom and the dignity of the individual. The culture of strong families and deep faith, and fierce independence. You know, these are not the kinds of words that we usually associate with the United States at the United Nations. This is what we associate with other countries, including Russia. But that defense of nationalism was very much a thread throughout his speech, including when he embraced and named names. He named his specific militarist/authoritarian favorites. Dictators du jour, perhaps. He mentioned India, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Poland, all of which governed by far right wing governments, as his special favorites, which I think was really quite telling.
GREG WILPERT: Yes, indeed. Let us turn to his comments on Saudi Arabia and Yemen and terrorism. Here’s a segment of what he had to say.
DONALD TRUMP: In the Middle East, our new approach is also yielding great strides and very historic change. Following my trip to Saudi Arabia last year, the Gulf countries opened a new center to target terrorist financing. They are enforcing new sanctions, working with us to identify and track terrorist networks, and taking more responsibility for fighting terrorism and extremism in their own region. The UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar have pledged billions of dollars to aid the people of Syria and Yemen. And they are pursuing multiple avenues to ending Yemen’s horrible, horrific civil war.
GREG WILPERT: So first Trump is touting his successes in the fight against terrorism, and then also talking about Yemen. But let’s focus first on the terrorism aspect. What’s your take on this?
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well, it was fascinating that the one thing he could pick out to praise the Gulf states for was this creation of this new center, the Center on Terrorism Financing, which- given that most analysts have agreed that although we don’t necessarily know exactly what individuals in Saudi Arabia are providing it or what institutions are providing it- that historically both with ISIS and al Qaeda the majority of state funding can be traced to Saudi Arabia. So that was a bit ironic. It was also rather funny when he mentioned the Gulf Cooperation Council, and he sort of stumbled over it and made it sound like the Gulf Corporation Council, which probably is a bit more accurate.
But he then moved from mentioning that center without really identifying what it’s done, because it hasn’t really done much. But then he went into a host of just straight-out lies where he talked about these pledges of aid to the people of Syria and Yemen. What they’re pledging to Yemen is more war. So that was just, you know, sort of out of the blue. He said that they are working hard, that they are pursuing an end to the horrific war in Yemen. That war, of course, overwhelmingly the casualties are caused by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, with direct participation of U.S. pilots who are flying the missions to provide in-air refueling of these Saudi bombers and UAE bombers.
So this whole notion that, if you just listen to his speech, you would believe that there was somehow a terrible civil war going on within Yemen, and the good neighbors of Saudi Arabia and the UAE are somehow working very hard to end it, it completely boggles the mind. It’s a complete reversal of what’s actually underway in the Yemen war. And of course he said nothing about the question of the role of the United States, both directly as I mentioned in providing in-air refueling, but also providing intelligence information, providing targeting information, and crucially, selling now hundreds of billions of dollars worth of weapons that are being used directly to kill civilians in that war.
GREG WILPERT: So Trump also went on to talk about Syria in this context. Here’s what he had to say about that issue.
DONALD TRUMP: The ongoing tragedy in Syria is heartbreaking. Our shared goals must be the de-escalation of military conflict, along with a political solution that honors the will of the Syrian people. In this vein, we urge the United Nations-led peace process be reinvigorated. But rest assured, the United States will respond if chemical weapons are deployed by the Assad regime.
GREG WILPERT: So what’s your take on this? Once again, also this issue of chemical weapons use as a possibility.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Yeah, the reassertion of his red line, that if chemical weapons are used we will respond, without taking any responsibility for what the military role of the United States has meant in Syria, without acknowledging that the Syrian civil war has not been a civil war alone for years, that it is in fact at least 11 separate wars that are being waged by multiple forces across Syria where Syrians are playing the role essentially of victims, overwhelmingly. And that reality has no, no place in Trump’s presentation at the United Nations.
He ignored the existing U.S. military role, that the U.S. is playing a very active military role in northern Syria. Didn’t say anything about that. It didn’t sound like he was planning a major change in that military role, reasserting the same threat he’s made in the past, claiming that the U.N. peace talks should go forward again, but without any explanation of what might be different on the ground, including the notion that you can’t have that kind of peace talks including the same people who are doing the bulk of the fighting. So how that plays out remains very, very unclear.
He spoke very briefly, actually, about Syria, and very quickly moved the conversation away from the actual war in Syria to the question of the refugees being caused by the Syrian war. And he used it as an opportunity to praise Jordan, which has of course been forced to accept huge numbers of Syrian refugees, as is true for Lebanon and a couple of other countries in the region as well, most especially Turkey. No acknowledgment of them. But using Jordan as the example, as the model, for what should happen to refugees, because that means they can be kept close by in preparation for going home. This is the Trumpian version of how to justify the complete denial of access to the United States for desperate refugees seeking to come to the U.S., approved and vetted by the United Nations for the United States. And now the U.S. has, once again- Trump has once again cut back even further the number of refugees that will ever be allowed into theU.S. under his administration. And it’s now down in the double digits.
The number of Syrian refugees that the U.S. has accepted this year is now 60. Six-zero. Not 60,000. Sixty. And there’s no mention of that. But he uses the question of the war in Syria to segue into talking about Jordan, and from there to justify without mentioning the incredible cruelty of his own administration’s policies, to segue into the question of why refugees- excuse me, why refugees should remain in their own region.
GREG WILPERT: Another major focus this year- just like last year, actually- was Iran. Here’s what he had to say about Iran.
DONALD TRUMP: Iran’s leaders plunder the nation’s resources to enrich themselves and to spread mayhem across the Middle East and far beyond. The Iranian people are rightly outraged that their leaders have embezzled billions of dollars from Iran’s treasury, seized valuable portions of the economy, and looted the people’s religious endowments all to line their own pockets and send their proxies to wage war. Not good. Iran’s neighbors have paid a heavy toll for the region’s agenda of aggression and expansion. That is why so many countries in the Middle East strongly supported my decision to withdraw the United States from the horrible 2015 Iran nuclear deal, and reimpose nuclear sanctions.
GREG WILPERT: So what’s your take on this? Of course, he’s mentioning our new sanctions on Iran, which already have had a pretty important impact on the economy there. What do you make of his comments there?
PHYLLIS BENNIS: The impact of sanctions have been devastating on the Iranian economy, and of course it’s been felt primarily by ordinary Iranian civilians far more than on the regime or on the military. Again, his presentation on Iran was filled with a host of just lies, where he talks about the many countries who supported the U.S. decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and to reimpose nuclear sanctions. The only countries that supported that are the key countries that are leading the anti-Iran U.S.-backed coalition in the region: Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. No one else was really so happy about this. And in the rest of the world there’s outrage about this decision.
In fact, just really within moments of his speech we got word that the Iranians and the European Union have reached agreement on a new, a new institution that’s going to be created as a way of evading the impact on U.S. sanctions on European banks, which have been unable to continue their ordinary legal business transactions with Iran because of the impact of U.S. sanctions, the threat of U.S. sanctions. And they are now creating a special- it’s almost like a separate banking system that will allow the transportation of goods and money between Iran and Europe to be able to continue ordinary business; something that Iran clearly needed if the Iran nuclear deal was going to survive without the United States. Something that all the European partners, plus China and Russia, have been eager to figure out a way to do that. And now the Europeans have simply gone around the United States and created a new way to evade that.
I think what was particularly dangerous was in the end of his presentation on Iran, Trump made a call to all the nations of the world, speaking again to the General Assembly. He called for all countries to isolate the Iranian regime until they end their aggressive policies, something like that, until they end their aggression. It’s not clear exactly what aggression he’s talking about. Of course, in Iraq, for instance, Iran is on the same side as the United States. It’s a little odd what they’re talking about. But nonetheless, he made this call. And implicit within it is a kind of threat to those countries who may not go along with U.S. efforts to isolate Iran may pay a very big price. We saw in another part of the speech, when he was talking about foreign aid, and essentially said from now on we will provide foreign aid only to our friends, only to those who support our policies. So presumably any impoverished country that depends on some kind of a pittance of U.S. foreign aid to provide for building wells in the countryside, or providing malarial drugs, or something like that, will have to weigh whether it will be worth it to them to stand on principle and refuse to move to isolate Iran when they have no beef with Iran because the price might be losing that support from the United States. So that was a very dangerous threat that he made there.
GREG WILPERT: Finally, Trump brought up his argument that moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem would actually help the peace process, because it acknowledges the realities on the ground. Here’s what he had to say about this.
By moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, the United States is committed to a future of peace and stability in the region, including peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. That aim is advanced, not harmed, by acknowledging the obvious facts.
GREG WILPERT: So what do you make of that argument, that you need to acknowledge the obvious facts, and therefore it’s OK to move the- I mean, this is, of course, an old issue. But I just want to get your response to this as well.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Sure. I think, first of all, it ignores again the role of the United States in creating those facts. The fact is that Israel has tried to annex- it hasn’t been acknowledged by any other country except the United States, but has tried to annex both occupied East Jerusalem and the occupied Golan Heights as part of itself. So when the U.S. helps to create those facts, now it’s saying we recognize those facts.
He did say one thing that I think was true and important, and never gets said in Washington, so that was a bit interesting, when he said that besides this issue of facts on the ground, acknowledging facts, that we also should not any longer rely on, quote, experts who have been proven wrong for so long. And I thought that was rather interesting, because there is this whole crop of people who for 25 years made their livelihood out of the so-called peace process. They’re now ensconced in various think tanks and various universities and whatever. And they played the role, as one of them. Aaron David Miller, admitted years later, that they played the role of Israel’s lawyer. What a surprise that their work didn’t work. So those experts have now been proven wrong, their 25 years of credibility, of we’re the ones who are leading the peace process. And you want to say, yeah, and how’s that going for you these days?
So that was something interesting that was true- rarely, in this speech. But I think what was, again, more dangerous was his sense that he could determine what is peace for the future. So what was interesting was what he didn’t talk about. He didn’t talk about justice. He of course left out Martin Luther King’s famous definition of peace, when he said peace is not just the absence of conflict, but the presence of justice. For Donald Trump, clearly the opposite is the case; that peace is precisely the absence of conflict, which in this case means the absence of Palestinian resistance. If the Palestinians would just shut up and roll over, everything would be OK, and we could declare the conflict over and everybody could go home. That’s the Trumpian version of what peace in the Middle East would look like. And that’s a very dangerous reality, because it bears no connection to the real world of Palestinian lives, either for Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation in the West Bank and in Gaza; the Palestinians living a half life in occupied East Jerusalem; Palestinian citizens of Israel who are the third and fourth and fifth class citizens; and the five and a half million Palestinian refugees, who of course are now facing a life without the lifeline of UNRWA, the key U.N. institution that the U.S. has just defunded.
So all of this was designed to say the Palestinians don’t matter, Palestinian lives don’t matter, and Palestinian rights certainly don’t matter. That is the definition of this so-called ‘deal of the century’ for ending this long conflict.
GREG WILPERT: I think that’s a very important point. But we’re going to have to leave it there for now. I was speaking to Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. Thanks again, Phyllis, for having joined us today.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Thank you, Greg. It’s been a pleasure.
GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.