Shadow Government is pleased to run thus post from guest-blogger, Mark Kennedy, a former member of congress and former key advisor on trade issues in the Bush Administration. He is currently Director of the Graduate School of Political management at George Washington University.
President Obama's surprise announcement in his State of the Union address that he plans to start talks on a free trade deal between the United States and the European Union could serve as a boon to the nation's economy or a bust for the nation's competitiveness. Though reaching any sort of deal will be difficult, leaders in the United States should avoid a proposal that could make American markets more like their European counterparts and should instead seek a plan that helps introduce the best of the American labor markets to the EU in order to boost growth on both sides of the Atlantic.
A successful free trade agreement (FTA) will achieve the following: expand U.S./EU trade, renew the Atlantic political/economic alliance, improve competitiveness in both markets, and set a benchmark for future trade accords.
In order to walk across the finish line together, the United States and the EU must effectively resolve their differences on two key economic policies.
The EU has several long-standing regulations preventing many U.S. agricultural products from coming to market. America has long argued that European demonization of genetically modified (GMO) crops as "Frankenfood" is not grounded in science. With the pressing need to meet the nutritional needs of a growing planet, the potential of GMO crops should not be set aside so quickly.
The United States' previous treatment of food controversies in free trade agreements can serve as a benchmark in this respect. The terms of the South Korean free trade agreement provided a timeline for when U.S. beef would gain access to Korean markets. A similar time-delayed structure with the EU would allow for officials to adjudicate the safety of American agriculture and for producers to make adjustments necessary to compete in a more open market. Allowing scare tactics to dominate what should be an economic and scientific debate is a loser for consumers on both sides of the Atlantic.
A common stumbling block for free trade agreements concern the differences between nations' labor regulations. American labor unions often balk at FTAs with the countries from the developing world because they fear that their members will be unable to compete with the emerging market's low-wage employees. This time around the shoe is on the other foot.
According to the World Economic Forum's 2012-13 Global Competitiveness Report, the United States' approach to labor flexibility is among the best in the world. EU nations tend to take a more populist and protectionist approach, which can limit productivity and harm young workers. Those protectionist policies have lead to high youth unemployment and unrest in EU nations like Greece and Spain. A final deal should recognize that and center labor arrangements around the idea that a growing economy can provide more job security than government rules.
European Commission President José Manuel Barroso warned at a press conference recently that the EU would not compromise on its "basic legislation" in trade talks.
Rather than approaching these trade discussions in a defensive posture, leaders on both sides should aggressively pursue outcomes that would be highly beneficial to their citizens and the world:
It is critical that those who support lower economic barriers stay engaged in support of a joint accord, but one that fosters openness rather than protectionism. A successful deal will expand Atlantic trade, strengthen the Atlantic alliance, improve competitiveness on both continents, and set a standard that stimulates expanded trade agreements with other regions
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For national security conservatives, last week's State of the Union address was something of a wasteland. On the most pressing challenges facing the nation -- Iranian and North Korean nukes, Syria's meltdown, the war in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda's metastasization, the looming disaster of defense sequestration -- we were treated to a heaping portion of presidential mush, platitudes, and happy talk largely detached from the urgency of the historical moment. The overall effect will surely reinforce a dangerous perception that has increasingly taken root among friend and foe alike: America is waning. The world may be unraveling, but as far as President Obama is concerned, it's really not our problem. U.S. leadership is closed for the season. We're busy nation building at home.
Dismal as it was, there was a section of the president's address that may hold unexpected promise. Though wrapped in a bright green bow of climate change, Obama's discussion of energy could have important national security consequences. Of particular note was his embrace of an energy security trust fund. The proposal is the brainchild of an organization called Securing America's Future Energy (SAFE) and its Energy Security Leadership Council (ESLC) -- the "nonpartisan coalition of CEOs and retired generals and admirals" that the president highlighted in his speech.
In a report issued last December, SAFE and the ESLC called for the establishment of an energy security trust that would be funded by royalties derived from expanded drilling for oil and gas on federal lands. The trust would have one purpose only: supporting R&D on technologies designed to break oil's stranglehold over America's transportation sector, which accounts for about 70 percent of overall U.S. consumption.
Importantly, the underlying motive behind the SAFE/ESLC proposal had nothing to do with climate change and everything to do with national security and the country's economic health. Its authors properly see America's dependence on oil as a major strategic vulnerability. Even taking into account today's revolution in North American energy production, the United States for the foreseeable future will remain mired in a global petroleum market characterized by high and volatile prices, domination by an oftentimes hostile cartel, and the constant threat of disruption by geopolitical events in the world's most unstable regions. While convinced that America's current oil and gas boom must be fully exploited for the huge economic benefits it promises, SAFE and the ESLC also believe it must be leveraged for the long-term objective of breaking our dependence on oil once and for all -- thereby achieving true energy security and a measure of strategic flexibility that U.S. foreign policy has not known for decades.
National security conservatives should be sympathetic to the effort. As I've recounted elsewhere, while the idea of targeting Iranian oil sales as a means of pressuring its nuclear program has been around since at least 2007, the trigger on such sanctions wasn't pulled until 2012. For almost five years, both the Bush and Obama administrations were deterred from taking aggressive action due to fears that removing large quantities of Iranian crude from the market might produce a devastating price shock that would inflict major harm on the global economy.
That's five crucial years that were largely frittered away while Iran was allowed to earn hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue, dramatically enhance its enrichment capacity, and accumulate a stockpile of enriched uranium that with further processing could be used to build a handful of nuclear bombs. Five crucial years during which the pursuit of America's most pressing national security priority -- stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons -- was dangerously constrained by our vulnerability to global oil markets. If that's not an intolerable situation for the world's leading nation to be in, I'm not sure what is. If there's a realistic strategy for doing something to mitigate it, we damn well should get started.
Equally worth noting, however, is the fact that when oil sanctions were finally imposed on Iran last year -- cutting Iranian exports by up to a million barrels per day -- a major disruption to global markets was successfully avoided in no small measure because of corresponding increases in oil production from the United States. As the race to stop Iran's nuclear program intensifies in coming months and further steps to curtail Iranian exports are contemplated -- perhaps removing as much as another 1.5 million barrels per day from the world market -- continued growth in U.S. production will only become more vital.
Now that President Obama has sought to co-opt the ESLC's CEOs, generals, and admirals for his purposes, it's vital to keep in mind the details of what exactly their energy security trust entails. Perhaps most importantly, the ESLC proposed that money for the Trust should come from new drilling in currently inaccessible federal lands and waters -- specifically to include the Pacific, Atlantic and eastern Gulf of Mexico areas of the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS), as well as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Moreover, the funds should be drawn from royalties that oil companies already pay as a matter of standard operating procedure when granted drilling rights in areas owned by the federal government. More pointedly, the trust as envisioned by SAFE and ESLC, explicitly ruled out the leveling of any new fees or taxes -- carbon or otherwise -- on oil and gas production. Finally, it's important to note that the money that would be diverted to the trust represents but a small fraction -- much less than 10 percent -- of the total new royalties that would fill federal coffers by opening the designated areas to drilling.
Perhaps not surprisingly, this isn't quite the Obama administration's vision for the Trust -- at least not yet. Most importantly, the administration is proposing that the money should be raised from royalties on existing production rather than from new production in the OCS and ANWR.
While Republicans should see the trust as an idea worth exploring and engage with Obama accordingly, they should hold fast to the ESLC's actual recommendation that explicitly links the trust to the opening of federal areas that were previously off limits. If the president wants to cloak himself in a proposal that "a nonpartisan coalition of CEOs and retired generals and admirals can get behind," Republicans should insist that he at least remain faithful to that proposal's core content.
The weight of the argument certainly favors Republicans. Economically, expanding oil production will serve as a huge boon to a still faltering U.S. economy. Strategically, it can play a vital role in stabilizing nervous global markets, especially in light of the looming showdown over Iran's nuclear weapons program. And politically, the reality is that no deal on an energy security trust is likely to get done unless Republicans get something significant on expanded drilling. Addressing that central pillar in the GOP's energy platform is probably an essential trade-off if Republicans are expected to overcome their deep-seated skepticism and go along with yet more funding for the Democrats' favorite hobby horse of green energy research.
Of course, it was the prospect of a win-win compromise that represented the genius of the SAFE/ESLC proposal in the first place. Republicans get expanded drilling. Democrats get more money for green energy. And in a single package, the sometimes competing goals of economic growth, reducing oil dependence, and lowering carbon emissions could all be addressed in a reasonable way. Something for everyone. That's the basis for broad consensus on a bipartisan energy deal that might actually do the country considerable good. If President Obama turns out to be truly serious about it, Republicans should be prepared to meet him half way.
One final note: For any Washington think tank, having the president of the United States specifically reference your organization in a State of the Union address and endorse one of its policy recommendations is the equivalent of hitting the jackpot. Major kudos to SAFE, an organization that I work with in an advisory capacity. Its success is a great reminder of the extraordinarily important contribution that privately funded non-profit research institutions can make to U.S. policy and the advancement of American interests.
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When asked, "would you be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?" then-candidate for President Barack Obama replied, "I would."
That answer is little noted, nor long remembered. Yet the challenges posed by North Korea and Iran's nuclear programs have only grown. Since President Obama took office, North Korea has conducted two more nuclear tests, the latest on the eve of the State of the Union speech, after having admitted a long-suspected clandestine uranium enrichment program in 2010. Meanwhile, Iran has more than quintupled its stocks of enriched uranium, more than doubled its enrichment capacity, and enriched to levels much closer to weapons grade. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently rejected direct talks with the United States, again slapping the hand the President offered in his first inaugural speech.
Moreover, David Sanger reported in the New York Times that the two threats may be converging: "The Iranians are also pursuing uranium enrichment, and one senior American official said two weeks ago that 'it's very possible that the North Koreans are testing for two countries.'" Should this extraordinary statement prove to be more than speculation, it would be a serious escalation of the proliferation threat.
What then did the president say about these matters in last night's State of the Union Speech? Not much:
"The regime in North Korea must know that they will only achieve security and prosperity by meeting their international obligations. Provocations of the sort we saw last night will only isolate them further, as we stand by our allies, strengthen our own missile defense, and lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats."
"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."
What the president did not say is that efforts to isolate North Korea are failing. The North's trade with China has more than tripled in recent years, and Chinese investment is mushrooming. So long as Beijing remains intent on shielding its ally from the consequences of nuclear brinksmanship, efforts to isolate Pyongyang will fail.
Similarly, while Iran has suffered tough and growing economic sanctions, they have not slowed Tehran's nuclear program, which is expanding and accelerating.
In the face of these threats, especially Pyongyang's latest provocation, the president apparently chose not to outline details of his reported plans for deeper cuts to the American nuclear arsenal. The apparent paradox would have been too great.
Indeed, the State of the Union Speech focused on domestic policy, with national security issues raised in the last quarter of the speech. While high unemployment and sluggish economic growth understandably remain the principle concerns of most Americans, the Administration can no longer apply "strategic patience" to the threats from Iran and North Korea. Patience is becoming neglect and neglecting them will only make them worse.
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In its scene-setter for the president's State of the Union Address, the New York Times, long one of the most reliable supporters of the Obama Administration, went off script and described the mood inside the White House in unsettling terms:
"Inside the White House and out, advisers and associates have noted subtle but palpable changes in Mr. Obama since his re-election. "He even carries himself a little bit differently," said one confidant who, like others, asked not to be identified discussing the president. He is relaxed, more voluble and even more confident than usual, these people say, freer to drop profanities or dismiss others' ideas -- enough that even some supporters fear the potential for hubris."
That striking text was in my mind as I studied the President's State of the Union Address. It was, as advertised, mostly about domestic policy. The sections that did touch on foreign policy were notable mostly for how disconnected they were from the urgency of the myriad crises confronting the administration:
Indeed, on the national security and foreign policy front, Obama's biggest State of the Union play involved announcing a new executive order to increase "information sharing" in the area of cyber defense. This is a sound and sensible measure in an area where the administration has made genuine contributions, but it is modest in light of the threat.
All told, the foreign policy section was troubling not because it proposed a range of dangerous policies, but because it seemed not to recognize how dangerous the world is becoming for U.S. policy. It seemed to be the speech of someone who felt he was in an unassailable position and did not think there was much to argue about and thus little on which he needed to persuade.
Relatedly, an earlier New York Times article addressed a theme well-familiar to the denizens of Shadow Government: the stark contrast between Obama's Bush-bashing rhetoric and Bush-embracing war on terror policies. I am quoted in the article, a syntax-mangling snippet from a longer conversation I had with the reporter, Peter Baker, who asked me to explain the disconnect.
I told him I could think of two possible explanations. One is mere hypocrisy -- that is, Obama knows that he has been the pot calling the kettle black and is happy to continue to do so until he pays some political price for it. I favored, however, a second explanation, one perhaps a wee bit more generous to the administration: the president and his backers sincerely believe that he was acting more responsibly than the Bush Administration because they sincerely believe in a cartoon caricature of the Bush policies. According to the caricature, Bush enacted certain policies for some combination of nefarious reasons -- he was power-hungry, he was seeking partisan advantage, he was beholden to certain oil and gas interests, he was lying to the public, he was exaggerating the threat, etc. -- and he did so without any regard to respecting civil liberties and other ethical values. By contrast, Obama enacted the same sort of policies, but only so as to protect Americans and only after due regard to balancing civil liberties and other ethical concerns.
Granted this second explanation is not all that more generous to the administration, and so I am not surprised that my friends on the other side of the aisle bristle at it. Their reactions fit neatly into two groups. About half have expressed great outrage that I would even suggest that Obama holds such a view. And the other half have expressed great outrage that I would call such a view a caricature since it is obvious to them that the view is correct!
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Over at the indispensable Cable, word comes that the White House is now pushing the line that President Obama eschews the notion of "American decline," and has even become a devoted reader of Bob Kagan. As presidential reading lists go, this is a welcome development. If present trends continue, perhaps the White House communications shop will soon issue a story noting that President Obama is also a reader of Shadow Government? [ed. Dream on! Are you just saying this to bait the anonymous snarky responses that will soon appear in the "Comments" section? Or are you in denial that the President is much more likely to read Dan Drezner's blog? Who, by the way, is funnier than you -- and also doesn't believe in American decline.]
All kidding aside, this is a serious issue that merits some scrutiny. On the one hand, President Obama's rhetorical rejection of American decline is significant and welcome, precisely because presidential rhetoric plays a role in forming a nation's character and actions. As I have commented before, if a nation's leadership and citizens start believing the nation is in decline, it risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy and infecting the nation's actions.
But presidential rhetoric is only a small part of the decline debate. Actions and policies are more important. So before junior White House staff start emulating their boss's reported new reading tastes and prompt a surge in Pennsylvania Avenue subscriptions to the likes of the Weekly Standard (to our friends at the Standard: may it be thus!), it is worth taking a closer look at this claim that the Obama administration rejects American decline.
This theme not inconveniently comes in an election year, as President Obama attempts to lay out his policy successes. As many others have pointed out, the White House seems reluctant to run on his major domestic policy initiatives such as ObamaCare or the $787 billion stimulus, judging by their almost complete absence from the State of the Union address. Instead, part of the campaign strategy seems to be pointing to foreign policy successes, such as in Obama's recent interview with Fareed Zakaria (himself a frequent apostle of American decline) where the president repeatedly claims that America's standing in the world is better than it was three years ago.
The inconvenient truth behind this claim is that most the Obama administration's foreign policy successes have come from adopting policies and strategies from the Bush administration. While as Jackson Diehl among others has pointed out, most of the Obama administration's signature initiatives have been failures. On the explicit question of American decline, rather than offering a full-throated rebuttal in his interview with Zakaria, Obama seems curiously ambivalent. On the one hand he strongly affirms American global leadership and repeats Madeleine Albright's description of the United States as the "indispensable nation," but on the other hand he says it is "inevitable" that China will overtake the United States as the world's largest economy.
Besides being a gifted journalist, Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker has also emerged as one of the White House's favored conduits for channeling the Administration's mindset and messages. For example, earlier this week Lizza published an article based on exclusive access he'd been given by the White House to internal decision memos on domestic policy. And it was also Lizza who received extensive access from senior administration officials for his famous profile of the White House's foreign policy last spring. Most notorious is the "leading from behind" phrase that the White House has regretted ever since, but the context it came from in the article is revealing and bears recalling (emphasis added):
Nonetheless, Obama may be moving toward something resembling a doctrine. One of his advisers described the President's actions in Libya as "leading from behind." That's not a slogan designed for signs at the 2012 Democratic Convention, but it does accurately describe the balance that Obama now seems to be finding. It's a different definition of leadership than America is known for, and it comes from two unspoken beliefs: that the relative power of the U.S. is declining, as rivals like China rise, and that the U.S. is reviled in many parts of the world.
This deliberate message from the White House probably bears a closer resemblance to President Obama's strategic mindset than election year sit-downs with journalists or campaign lines from State of the Union addresses. Why? Because it also reflects many of the administration's actions. Such as the drawdown decisions in Iraq and Afghanistan that seemed to reflect political timetables more than conditions on the ground and commitments to maintaining American credibility. Or the recent "pivot" to Asia, which as many of us have pointed out is a welcome assertion of American presence in a strategic region but loses its potency if it is under-resourced, and presented as a retreat elsewhere because of our diminished capabilities. Or the administration's persistent refusal to make any serious cuts and reforms to the domestic entitlements that are fueling our runaway debt -- while the only spending cuts the White House has actually implemented are to the defense budget, which as Gary Schmitt points out is what we can least afford. And yes, even "leading from behind" our European allies during the Libya intervention.
Given the above actions the administration has taken that do diminish America's power and credibility in the world, is America actually in decline? No -- not yet anyway. Bob Kagan is correct. Our nation has too many strengths and is too resilient to be set back that much in such a short time. America's problems are considerable, but I would still rather have our challenges than the problems facing any other nation, whether China's brittle governance, imbalanced economy, demographic troubles, and resentful neighbors, or the European Union's currency and debt crisis, democratic deficit, and anemic defense capabilities. Rather, the worry is that the Obama administration's combination of actions and inactions are setting the United States on a trajectory towards decline -- a trajectory that if it continues unabated will be hard to arrest.
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I agree with my colleague Peter Feaver that the president's State of the Union address focused predominantly on domestic policy. This is unsurprising, however, given the economic and other domestic challenges faced by the United States and President Obama's preoccupation with those challenges since assuming office.
Nevertheless, I believe that the 2011 State of the Union address demonstrated an evolution in the Obama administration's foreign policy focus. The president's first State of the Union address in 2009 dealt briefly with Iraq (reaffirming the U.S. intention to depart), Afghanistan and Pakistan (announcing a review of strategy to "defeat al Qaeda and combat extremism"), and the Guantanamo Bay detention center (promising to close it). He also announced a "new era of engagement," stressing the United States' need for help in addressing the world's problems and the world's need for U.S. leadership. All in all, about 400 words were devoted to foreign policy.
The 2010 State of the Union address reprised the 2009 themes (save Gitmo), while including a fuller discussion of nuclear nonproliferation and brief references to Iran and North Korea. The discussion of Iraq and Afghanistan was also meatier. While in 2009 the president said only that he would "announce a way forward in Iraq that leaves Iraq to its people and responsibly ends [the] war," in 2010 he spoke of "partner[ing] with the Iraqi people to promote regional peace and prosperity." While in 2009 his discussion of Afghanistan was limited to mentioning the strategy review and the need to defeat al Qaeda and deny it safehavens, in 2010 he repeated those themes, but also spoke of training Afghan forces, encouraging good governance, combating corruption, and other elements of U.S. policy. And his discussion of "engagement" shifted subtly to focus more on U.S. leadership.
In 2011, these shifts continued, though the foreign policy portion of this year's State of the Union is startlingly similar -- in themes, structure, and length -- to that in 2010 speech. The 2011 version evinces a greater willingness to speak frankly about our foes: the Taliban are mentioned for the first time, and the president referred to the "Iranian Government" rather than the "Islamic Republic of Iran," the latter a phrase which in previous remarks was intended to convey respectfulness and signal our pacific intent. Other areas of the world get their first mention -- India and Brazil, for example. The president reaffirmed his support for the "democratic aspirations of all people," continuing a theme from his most recent U.N. General Assembly speech and Secretary Clinton's speech earlier this month at the Forum for the Future. Unlike in those instances, however, this time the president lent specific support to democracy activists in Tunisia. And crucially, the president strongly asserted his belief in U.S. virtues, values, and leadership, which underpin our global influence and ambitions.
So yes, the speech is short on discussion of foreign policy, contains plenty of gloss (like all State of the Union speeches), omits important issues (like long-term strategies for Iraq and Afghanistan, and Egypt and Lebanon, both gripped by crises), and falls short on defense spending. But it suggests a continued movement away from feel-good foreign-policy slogans (such as 2009's "new era of engagement") and criticism of the previous administration, toward a greater willingness to take sides, focus on vital interests rather than trendy issues, and delve into the complexities and nitty-gritty of policy.
To be sure, there is a long way to go. President Obama has yet to articulate a bold foreign policy vision, and instead continues to take an issue-by-issue approach bound together by unobjectionable, but relatively insubstantial references to "engagement." Campaign rhetoric aside, the United States has been engaged multilaterally in international affairs since at least World War II, and will be for the foreseeable future. It may be that the president believes that restoring the United States' competitive edge -- through economic growth, education, investment in R&D and infrastructure, etc. -- is itself something of a foreign-policy strategy in a globalized world. But while such measures are necessary for maintaining and enhancing U.S. prosperity and leading international role, they do not address how we utilize that role. That is the question that in my view remains unanswered, and which we see the U.S. currently shying away from in places like Egypt. It is unquestionably good that we reaffirm U.S. leadership and influence, but it is not sufficient. Eventually the president must lay out to what end and on whose behalf we will exercise our leadership and wield our influence.
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The State of the Union speech was almost completely about domestic policy. By my count, roughly 1/7th of the address (about 1000 words in a 7000 word speech) was devoted to foreign policy and national security, the bailiwick of this blog. Perhaps this proportion reflects the mood of the country, or the medium of the platform, or the mode of this administration. However, it is a noteworthy proportion for a president who mentioned national security in his inaugural address before raising any domestic policy issue -- and did so rather dramatically with the words, "Our nation is at war.…"
Last night, President Obama did mention the war, or rather the wars. He described the Iraq war as "coming to an end" and, while he did claim that our troops were leaving "with their heads held high," that was about as far as he was willing to go in terms of claiming success or failure. It was a far cry from the triumphalist rhetoric of Vice President Biden, by comparison. Obama mentioned a "lasting partnership with the Iraqi people," but he placed that squarely with "our civilians," thus avoiding mention of the critical role the U.S. military will play over the next decade in helping train and maintain Iraqi security forces.
Obama's mention of the broader war on terror was brief but otherwise Bushian, combining the kinetic ("we have taken the fight to al Qaeda and their allies") with the police work ("Thanks to our intelligence and law enforcement professionals…") with the war of ideas ("…the conviction that American Muslims are a part of our family.") Left unaddressed is the ongoing controversy over the Obama administration's embrace of the lion's share of the Bush war on terror policies circa 2007.
There were a few optimistic notes about Afghanistan and Pakistan that were doubtless discordant in the ears of the growing number of Americans, especially within the chattering class and most especially among the president's political base, who believe that the mission there is doomed. The confusion over the long-range strategy for Afghanistan was left unaddressed -- the briefest possible mention to the infamous July 2011 deadline and no mention whatsoever of U.S. commitments during the critical period from July 2011 to 2014. I suspect that one year from now domestic politics will demand that the 2012 State of the Union address spend a bit more time elaborating on all of this.
The rest of the foreign-policy references were noteworthy for their focus on the past rather than the present or future. For the most part, they were a series of pats on the back for things done -- New START passed, new Iranian sanctions imposed, new NATO strategic document unveiled, and so on -- rather than a bold vision for how to address the challenges that remain.
President Obama did address the foreign-policy topic of the hour, the popular unrest in the Arab world, but with only the blandest of references to Tunisia and no mention whatsoever of the far more ominous rumblings in Egypt and Lebanon. My objection is not with what the president said ("The United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people") but with what the president did not say, as in "What this means for Egypt is.…," or "So in Lebanon we must.…" Undoubtedly, the president's advisors decided that given the delicacy of rapidly fluid environment, the less said the better.
From my parochial point of view, the president's best national security-related reference was his call to open up all U.S. campuses to military recruiters and to ROTC. This is an issue that has true bipartisan support and is long overdue. It is also an issue on which President Obama has unique influence, given that the target audience -- university administrators -- is likely one of the more ardent factions in the president's political base.
Otherwise, the speech offered little grist for a foreign-policy mill. It was not much of a harbinger of how the president and his team will handle the myriad foreign-policy challenges they face. Yet I am confident that President Obama will spend far more than 1/7th of the remainder of his current term on foreign policy, so Shadow Government folks will have plenty to address in the coming months even if there was not much for us last night.
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The State of the Union address offers any president the temptation to revel in the pageantry and splendor of the office. He can sound resonant themes and expound on U.S. values. He can embellish these motifs with the recognition of carefully-placed guests in the balcony.
President Obama is at his best when delivering high-altitude orations about national aspirations. This can be terrifically effective in a campaign or in a moment of national mourning. It can also be a necessary prelude to effective action, a way of rallying the public to support difficult choices.
The problem is that on the key issues of trade and the deficit President Obama's prelude to action has now lasted more than half his term. On each, he has earnestly stressed the national need for action. Yet on trade, he has only moved the country to where it was in mid-2007. On the deficit, he has moved the country backwards.
In his weekly radio address on Saturday, the president said, "Here's the truth about today's economy: If we're serious about fighting for American jobs and American businesses, one of the most important things we can do is open up more markets to American goods around the world."
This has the standard mercantilist twist of the president's trade advocacy, but it's a worthy theme. How does it translate into action?
Signals from the White House indicate that President Obama's State of the Union (SOTU) address tomorrow night will focus heavily on domestic and economic policy. Understandably so, as domestic and economic issues spurred the GOP's massive Congressional gains, and remain the nation's predominant concerns. The SOTU is President Obama's best platform to regain the political initiative and point the country towards his preferred course over the next two years.
Yet the president should not neglect national security policy in the SOTU, for two reasons. First, while the American people are his primary audience, we are not his only audience. Foreign leaders -- friends, foes, and fence-sitters alike -- will be watching keenly for signs from Obama about strategic priorities and U.S. resolve. Second, while domestic and economic policy has thus far defined this presidency, the future by its nature will surprise, and national security could reemerge as a defining concern.
Here are three issues President Obama should address tomorrow night:
Afghanistan. The administration continues to send conflicting and conflicted signals about the Afghanistan war and the meaning of July 2011 as a "drawdown" date. As Peter Feaver has argued, the White House's rhetorical neglect of Afghanistan threatens to erode tenuous public support. Meanwhile, key actors -- ranging from our NATO allies, India, and the Afghan people and government to Pakistan and the Taliban -- all remain uncertain about the United States' commitment to success in the Afghan mission. And all will in their own ways hedge accordingly. The Congressional audience tomorrow night will be essential for supporting and continuing to fund the war effort -- and needs to know it is a priority for the president. Most important, U.S. forces currently deployed in theater need to hear from their commander-in-chief that he is resolved to see their efforts through.
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All senior agency heads in the U.S. government, as well as second, third, and fourth tier officials, try their hardest to inject at least a sentence into the State of the Union address. It is the shortcut for ensuring that their pet policy initiatives at least see the light of day, even if they are not brought to fruition. This year's address will be no different, and for those concerned about national security, what the president says, and what he does not say, will be of the utmost importance.
As senior DoD leaders are already pointing out, the upcoming fiscal year, FY 2012, marks an inflection point in defense spending. There have four such points since World War II: those after that war, Korea and Vietnam, marked the end of major conflict. The fourth, like the one anticipated for the next fiscal year, was the product of domestic economic pressures and growing deficits. How far the defense budget ultimately declines will very much depend on not only the budget levels predicted for FY 12, but for the following five years as well. The president should be cautious about specific budget targets beyond the upcoming fiscal year; a signal of further anticipated declines could send misleading signals to the United States' adversaries about the degree of her determination to confront them at any future time.
The president should, on the other hand, throw his weight behind key DoD initiatives, notably Tricare reform. Secretary of Defense Gates has made the strongest case for increasing Tricare charges; the president should back him up, and do so forcefully.
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The president delivering the State of the Union address in person is a relatively recent phenomenon. Before Woodrow Wilson restored the practice, even populists like Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt fulfilled this Constitutional requirement by sending an address to be read to the Congress, which is curious, since the State of the Union is the president's most important speech, both substantively and symbolically. It gives him the opportunity to set a governing agenda, a chance to grab the commanding heights at the beginning of a legislative year. With all of the Congress, president's cabinet, justices of the Supreme Court, and Joint Chiefs of Staff arrayed, it theatrically reinforces that our executive is the primus inter pares of our political system.
This year's State of the Union message will be especially important for President Obama, since a new Congress has just taken office after an election widely considered a referendum on the first half of the president's term in office, and the opposition has an activist agenda that, if adroitly implemented, would effectively sideline the president for the coming two years.
The main theme of the president's address should be economic: outlining job creation and debt reduction strategies. He needs to steal these issues from the Republicans who carried the election. While it is factually incorrect to characterize the economic crisis that began in 2008 as "the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression," that mantra is a political winner for the president. It buys him more latitude if he can frame the issue as staving off disaster, and he needs to effectively challenge the Republican narrative that his policies have deepened the recession. Other successes will not supersede a failure in reducing unemployment. The president needs to carry the argument that he is dedicated to job creation, a perception that has been undercut by his extended attention to other issues like health care reform, and on which the 2012 presidential election will likely hinge.
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Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.