Make no mistake — to use one of President Obama’s favorite phrases — the United States faces a difficult and daunting foreign policy challenge over the next three years of Obama’s first term.

Still, it was a pleasure to listen to a State of the Union address, especially after eight years of his predecessor’s alarmist warnings and warlike thundering, in which war, terrorism, and "rogue states" went almost unmentioned.

During an hour-plus speech, the president devoted about eight minutes to foreign affairs, and much of that dealt with issues other than war and terrorism, things like negotiations on nuclear disarmament, HIV AIDS, and climate change. Even though the problems are still out there, it was wonderful to listen to a president who didn’t try to scare us to death or mobilize us for some misguided military adventure.

He started the short foreign-policy portion of his speech with a slap at President Bush, who bungled the powerful, worldwide sympathy for the United States after 9/11 by launching his absurd Global War on Terror and his illegal war in Iraq. "Sadly, some of the unity we felt after 9/11 has dissipated," said Obama, adding that he wouldn’t attack Bush directly for that: "We can argue all we want about who’s to blame for this, but I’m not interested in re-litigating the past."

Then he ridiculed the Republican party’s tough-guy attitude: "Let’s put aside the schoolyard taunts about who’s tough. … Let’s leave behind the fear and division."

In other words, not only did Obama criticize the "fear-and-division" strategy of the right, but he notably avoided engaging in the fear-and-division tactic himself. That alone is worth a standing ovation.

On Afghanistan, Obama didn’t thunder about crushing the Taliban and winning "victory." Instead, he emphasized that US troops will begin to withdraw from Afghanistan in July 2011, which is the most important part of his own misguided Afghanistan policy. Here’s what he said: "In Afghanistan, we’re increasing our troops and training Afghan security forces so they can begin to take the lead in July of 2011, and our troops can begin to come home." (Even David Petraeus, the ambitious general who leads Centcom, is fighting the idea that the president has set a date of July 2011.) That’s not nothing: a president committed to open-ended war, or a president committed to some impossible-to-achieve "victory" in Godforsakistan, would rally Americans for war. But what Americans heard last night is: "Come home."

Ditto on Iraq. Rather than crow about the great American "accomplishment" in shattering Iraq, killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, destroying nearly all of that state’s institutions, and pushing it to the brink of renewed civil war once again in 2010, what Obama said was: "Make no mistake: This war is ending, and all of our troops are coming home." Note the word "all." Speaking for the pro-war, neoconservative faction of marginalized radical-right militarists, Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard complained: "Obama can’t bring himself to say that we prevailed in Iraq. … He won’t say that we are grateful for [our troops’] victory in a war where defeat would have been disastrous." No, he won’t — because what America did in Iraq is a disgusting war crime, and we wouldn’t have faved the possibility of a "disastrous" defeat in Iraq if we hadn’t launched an unnecessary war in the first place, Bill.

Kristol also groused about the fact that Obama didn’t call for the overthrow of the government of Iran. "Obama didn’t allude to the possibility — let alone embrace the prospect — of regime change in Iran," grumped Kristol, who never met a regime he didn’t want to change. But he’s right. Obama didn’t call for regime change in Iran, and even as Obama praised demonstrators in Iran he still called it "the Islamic Republic of Iran," signalling that he’s willing to take Iran on its own terms.

Anyone reading my commentary knows that I’m a Obama critic on foreign policy, in a wide range of areas. But let’s take a moment to appreciate Obama’s speech last night.