I’ll give President Obama one-and-half cheers for the (very brief) foreign policy section of the State of the Union address. To his credit, he didn’t raise the specter of China as a threat to American security interests, instead using China’s economic progress and technological innovation in computers, high-speed rail, and higher education as a challenge to boost American investment in education and technology. He didn’t try to scare Americans with some hyped-up, existential threat from Al Qaeda or Iran. On Afghanistan, he said: “This July, we will begin to bring our troops home.”
But in a speech carefully calculated to reach out to elusive, independent “moderate” voters, replete with his vision for a resurgent America that maximizes its own technological know-how and its ability to educate its citizens, Obama ignored his own administration’s dismal failure in foreign policy.
He didn’t exactly trumpet American “exceptionalism,” and he didn’t proclaim America’s mission to remake the world, in so many words, but he inserted into his speech an odd phrase: “No one rival superpower is aligned against us.” Without saying so, he portrayed the United States, therefore, as the world’s lone superpower, an errant vision that reinforces the view of the neoconservatives and liberal interventionists that America has some vague responsibility for the rest of the world. “American leadership has been renewed and America’s standing has been restored,” he proclaimed. Really? Nowhere in his speech did Obama reflect on the necessary, humbling vision of the United States as a declining world power whose future depends on its reaching a series of accommodations with at least five or six other rising powers and regions.
As one sign of his administration’s accomplishments, Obama cited Iraq, where “This year…we [will] finish the job of bringing our troops out of Iraq.” Perhaps so, but in its wake America is leaving a shattered nation, with hundreds of thousands dead, its infrastructure destroyed. More than anything else, as he said in an earlier speech, Obama sees Iraq as a place where it’s time to “turn the page,” but the country America leaves behind is an open sore, a virtual carcass that its neighbors, including Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, plan to carve up and feast on.
On Afghanistan, the other war, Obama put a rosy gloss on the catastrophically mismanaged war, in which more and more Afghan provinces have fallen under Taliban control or influence, with impregnable safe havens in neighboring Pakistan feeding an insurgency that won’t go away, in a country whose government is irreparably corrupt and feckless. To Obama, though, everything’s fine:
“In Afghanistan, our troops have taken Taliban strongholds and trained Afghan security forces. Our purpose is clear: By preventing the Taliban from reestablishing a stranglehold over the Afghan people, we will deny Al Qaeda the safe haven that served as a launching pad for 9/11. Thanks to our heroic troops and civilians, fewer Afghans are under the control of the insurgency.”
Meanwhile, Pakistan—that near-failed state, whose economy barely exists, drowned in a flood of biblical proportions last year, where terrorism runs rampant and the military is in league with the Taliban and assorted terrorist groups aimed at India—well, here’s all Obama would say about Pakistan: “In Pakistan, al Qaeda’s leadership is under more pressure than at any point since 2001. Their leaders and operatives are being removed from the battlefield. Their safe havens are shrinking.”
On Iran, while thankfully not unleashing the Tehran boogeyman at American listeners, he managed one sentence: “Because of a diplomatic effort to insist that Iran meet its obligations, the Iranian government now faces tougher sanctions, tighter sanctions than ever before.” Needless to say, “tougher sanctions, tighter sanctions” is not a strategy, and so far at least Obama has failed to make any progress on détente with Iran.
Then, in one breathtaking sentence, Obama summed up the rest of the world: “We’ve reset our relationship with Russia, strengthened Asian alliances, built new partnerships with nations like India.”
Unfortunately, Obama’s foreign policy is in ruins. Nowhere in the speech did he mention his complete failure to make progress on the Israel-Palestine front. The administration’s growing effort to surround and contain China, by arming Taiwan, building alliances with rival Asian powers, conducting military maneuvers with Japan and South Korea, reopening ties to the vicious Indonesian secret police… well, none of that made the speech. His pledge to start pulling out of Afghanistan six months from now was heartening, but Obama faces bitter opposition to the pullout from his own generals and from the Republicans, and nothing he said provides any comfort that he’s willing to stand up to that pressure.
And, while he included the phrase “defense spending” in his litany of areas that might see cuts—“domestic spending, defense spending, healthcare spending, and spending through tax breaks and loopholes”—and praised Secretary of Defense Gates for agreeing “to cut tens of billions of dollars in spending that he and his generals believe our military can do without,” he ignored the fact that Gates’s modest trims in the defense budget will still allow the bloated Pentagon budget to continue its sharp upward curve since the late 1990s, even without including Iraq and Afghanistan war costs.
In all, in a speech designed to score political points on the domestic front, last night Obama seemed to be channeling Ray Price, Timi Yuro and Eddy Arnold: “Make the world go away.”