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Trump Administration in 'Full-court' Diplomatic Press at UN

  • Peter Heinlein

President Donald Trump meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the Palace Hotel during the United Nations General Assembly, in New York, Sept. 20, 2017. From left, Abbas, Trump, an unidentified interpreter, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner.

For an administration that came to office nine months ago with precious little foreign policy experience, President Donald Trump and his team are making a remarkable splash at this week’s United Nations General Assembly gathering.

From his headline-grabbing barbs pointed at North Korea, Iran and Venezuela, to his four-day marathon of meetings with world leaders, Trump -- with his blunt, some would say simplistic style -- is pushing for diplomatic breakthroughs that have evaded even the most seasoned statesmen.

Sitting alongside Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas Wednesday, he talked hopefully of solving what is considered the most intractable problem.

WATCH: Trump Putting Own Stamp on US Foreign Policy

“We're looking seriously at peace, and maybe, ultimately, peace in the whole of the Middle East," he said. “And I think we have a pretty good shot — maybe the best shot ever — and that's what we're looking to do.”

Though chances of a breakthrough are considered remote, Trump also met during the day with other key Middle East players, including Jordanian King Abdullah and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. He met earlier with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Following his threat in the General Assembly to “totally destroy” North Korea if forced to defend the U.S. or its allies, Trump will meet individually Thursday with the leaders of Japan and South Korea, and will also speak to them together.

President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi at the Palace Hotel during the United Nations General Assembly, in New York, Sept. 20, 2017.
President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi at the Palace Hotel during the United Nations General Assembly, in New York, Sept. 20, 2017.

Trump’s forays into the world’s trouble spots will also touch on Afghanistan. He is meeting Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who used his General Assembly speech to praise the U.S. administration’s decision to send an additional 4,000 troops to augment the roughly 8,400 already there.

Threatening Iran's nuclear deal

Hanging over all of this is the specter of Iran.

A day after describing the Iran nuclear agreement signed by his predecessor, Barack Obama, as “an embarrassment,” Trump told reporters Wednesday he had made a decision on the Iran deal.

He declined, however, to reveal whether he would withdraw the U.S. from the pact, and he has until October 15 to decide, but withdrawal seemed all but certain in view of his comment a day earlier that the agreement was “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.”

The annual General Assembly debate is proving to be an opportunity for the Trump team to find its foreign policy footing.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley is already playing a high-profile role on the world stage. Trump announced at a lunch with African leaders Wednesday that he is dispatching her on a tour of the continent’s capitals.

But Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are carrying a larger share of the duty in New York this week.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence speaks during a high-level Security Council meeting on United Nations peacekeeping operations, at U.N. headquarters, in New York, Sept. 20, 2017, as U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley looks on.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence speaks during a high-level Security Council meeting on United Nations peacekeeping operations, at U.N. headquarters, in New York, Sept. 20, 2017, as U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley looks on.

A picture of Trump’s policymaking inner circle was on display Wednesday during a bilateral meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May. Surrounding Trump were Haley, Pence, Tillerson, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House economic adviser Gary Cohn.

Pence represented the United States at Wednesday’s U.N. Security Council session on peacekeeping, where he delivered a wide-ranging address that touched on radical Islamist terrorism and Washington’s criticism of the U.N. Human Rights Council.

Pence also lunched with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who led Beijing’s delegation in the absence of President Xi Jinping.

Tillerson, who has been criticized for a slow start as America’s chief diplomat, is due to address a special Security Council meeting on nuclear nonproliferation this week.

Tillerson on Iran

In a rare television interview Tuesday, the secretary of state appeared to go a step further than Trump on the Iran nuclear deal, saying the agreement must be changed or the United States would pull out.

Democratic response to the administration’s full-court diplomatic press has been pointed.

In an interview on MSNBC Wednesday, former Secretary of State John Kerry said Trump’s U.N. speech had put “America last and diplomacy last,” a slap at the president’s “America First” theme.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who lost the 2016 presidential race to Trump, called his message “dark and dangerous” during an appearance on a late-night CBS network talk show.

Diplomatic observers, however, said the U.S. foreign policy on display at the United Nations this week has been remarkable for its similarity to that of past administrations, except with regard to Iran and climate change.

In an interview, Gary Schmitt, of the conservative research group American Enterprise Institute, said, “If you just landed from Mars, you could look at the policies Trump has pursued and you might think Hillary Clinton had been elected president.”

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