Both sides silent about foreign friends and foes — and that's worrisome

Silence is not always golden. What is left unsaid sometimes can be disturbing, even alarming — as it was from both sides of the political aisle during Tuesday’s State of the Union address. 

During the course of his 82-minute speech, President TrumpDonald John TrumpGrassroots America shows the people support Donald Trump Trump speaks to rebel Libyan general attacking Tripoli Dem lawmaker: Mueller report shows 'substantial body of evidence' on obstruction MORE mentioned only three foreign leaders: North Korea’s Kim Jong Un (with whom he claimed to have a “good relationship”), China’s President Xi Jinping (for whom he claimed to have “great respect”) and Juan Guaido, Venezuela’s opposition leader and interim president.

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There was nary a mention of the leaders of America’s allies, however. He had nothing positive to say about them, nor did he bother to mention them by name, with but two notable exceptions. He singled out Canada and Mexico, America’s partners in the “historic trade blunder … the catastrophe known as NAFTA,” effectively blaming them for “shattering the dreams” of American workers. He also asserted that “for years the United States was being treated very unfairly by friends of ours, by members of NATO.” Perhaps it was better that he didn’t single out the worst culprits by name.

There was much more that the president left unmentioned. He had nothing to say about China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea. He castigated Russia for violating the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty and reiterated that America was pulling out of the treaty, but he said nothing about Russia’s worrisome aggression in Ukraine and Crimea. 

After bragging for two years that, unlike his predecessors, he would bring peace to the Middle East, he had nothing to say about the state of Jared Kushner’s reported peace plan. Nor did he mention Yemen, whose crisis is, arguably, far worse than what he termed “the crisis on our southern border.”

As for Syria, the scene of another major humanitarian crisis, Trump merely reasserted that all that is left is “to destroy the remnants of ISIS” and “give our brave warriors in Syria a warm welcome home.” Left unsaid was that, as Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of the U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee, a U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria would in all likelihood lead to a revival of ISIS — which, it might be added, still comprises thousands of fighters, hardly qualifying as “remnants.”

Moreover, the president said nothing about the Syrian Kurds, who have borne the brunt of the fighting — and the dying — in the war against ISIS in Syria. The president may have described his Middle East policy as “principled realism.” But what his principles are, and whether his approach is realistic, remains very much open to question.

Yet, the president did not hold a monopoly on silence when it came to national security issues. One particular instance deserves special mention.

The Democrats in the House chamber did not react to the president’s remarks about Iran’s threats to destroy Israel. Virtually no Democrats rose from their seats when the president announced that “we will not avert our eyes from a regime that chants ‘Death to America’ and threatens genocide against the Jewish people.”

To some extent, the government of Israel is to blame for allowing the country to become a partisan issue. It has made no real effort to limit the growth of towns and villages that increasingly have muddied the prospects of an agreement with the Palestinians. And, perhaps because its ambassador in Washington once worked for the Republican Party, its efforts to reach out to Democrats have been, at best, half-hearted.

That the Democrats should have, nevertheless, sat stone-faced when the president sought to reassure Israel of America’s commitment to its security is a reflection of the party’s increasing tilt in the direction of it leftist wing, which views Israel as a greater threat to human rights than Syria, Iran, Russia or China.

It was not only Israel that met with silence on the part of Democrats; there was virtually no aspect of national security that fared any better. In presenting the rejoinder to the president’s address, Stacey Abrams (D-Ga.) did not mention national security at all, other than a brief reference to climate change. She did not identify any other threats to national security — not Russia, not China, not Iran, not ISIS. Not even terrorism. It was as if the Democrats were trying to demonstrate that they could be even more isolationist than the administration.

Sherlock Holmes solved the mystery of the Hound of the Baskervilles by deducing that the dog did not bark. Sometimes what is not said is as important as what is.

That the president omitted so many major national security concerns, and the Democrats mentioned none at all, should be cause for concern.

The State of the Union address, and the Democratic rebuttal, both reflect America’s continuing inward turn and, therefore, should be a cause for real alarm— not only for America’s allies, friends and partners, but for all Americans who still care deeply about the nation’s prospects for its continued international leadership in the years to come.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.