Men watch a television news report on US President Barack Obama's State of the Union address in Kabul, Afghanistan Wednesday, February 13, 2013. (AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq)
There’s lots to question about President Obama’s remarks in the State of the Union address, but for the most part he outlined a liberal to-do list that will satisfy, and energize, the Democratic party base. On foreign policy, not so much.
It almost seemed as if Obama was saying: If I’m going to propose all this good domestic, liberal stuff, let me knock some heads overseas, OK?
Admitting that “the organization that attacked us on 9/11 is a shadow of its former self,” Obama said that nevertheless he plans to continue and strengthen drone attacks, for which he used a euphemism, “a range of capabilities”:
Today, the organization that attacked us on 9/11 is a shadow of its former self. Different al Qaeda affiliates and extremist groups have emerged – from the Arabian Peninsula to Africa. The threat these groups pose is evolving. But to meet this threat, we don't need to send tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad, or occupy other nations. Instead, we will need to help countries like Yemen, Libya, and Somalia provide for their own security, and help allies who take the fight to terrorists, as we have in Mali. And, where necessary, through a range of capabilities, we will continue to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans.
No, we don’t need to send tens of thousands overseas, we can zap anyone we want from the comfort of our offices.
The president didn’t bother trying to justify the twin esclaations, or “surges,” he ordered in Afghanistan in 2009. Instead, he promised to bring slightly more than half of the troops home in a year, caving in to the military’s demand that it maintain the full contingent of what will be 60,000 troops by this summer through the so-called “fighting season.” Said Obama:
Tonight, we stand united in saluting the troops and civilians who sacrifice every day to protect us. Because of them, we can say with confidence that America will complete its mission in Afghanistan, and achieve our objective of defeating the core of al Qaeda. Already, we have brought home 33,000 of our brave servicemen and women. This spring, our forces will move into a support role, while Afghan security forces take the lead. Tonight, I can announce that over the next year, another 34,000 American troops will come home from Afghanistan. This drawdown will continue. And by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over.
It may or may not be over by then, and even The New York Times has had enough, repeatedly editorializing that the current drawdown is far too slow and calling for all American forces to be withdrawn in 2013. In the meantime, more Afghan civilians will die needlessly, like the ones (including five children) who were blown to bits just hours after Obama’s speech.
Obama has resisted calls from his own administration to join the civil war in Syria, and though he praised the rebellion last night at least he didn’t sound hawkish.
On Iran, in advance of two sets of talks that begin this week in Switzerland and later this month in Kazakhstan, Obama said virtually nothing:
Likewise, the leaders of Iran must recognize that now is the time for a diplomatic solution, because a coalition stands united in demanding that they meet their obligations, and we will do what is necessary to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon.
In other words, the status quo. By saying that the United States will “do what is necessary,” he presumably means that all-options-are-on-the-table thing. Really, though, no one – most of all Iran – is taking that seriously.
Sadly, in talking about his visit to the Middle East next month, Obama gave a shout out to Israel, of course, and didn’t bother to mention the Palestinians: “And we will stand steadfast with Israel in pursuit of security and a lasting peace.” That, naturally, got a standing ovation from the Republicans.
The best part of the foreign policy section of Obama’s speech was this stirring passage:
We also know that progress in the most impoverished parts of our world enriches us all. In many places, people live on little more than a dollar a day. So the United States will join with our allies to eradicate such extreme poverty in the next two decades: by connecting more people to the global economy and empowering women; by giving our young and brightest minds new opportunities to serve and helping communities to feed, power, and educate themselves; by saving the world's children from preventable deaths; and by realizing the promise of an AIDS-free generation.
If that’s true, and if Obama intends to make the eradication of poverty a central goal of his second term, then that is true progress. It’s not that expensive – a few tens of billions of dollars and a cooperative international effort will kick-start the idea – and it is an achievable goal. But it means reordering priorities overseas, and getting the American people on board for a major, global effort.