Shadow Government

Big year for foreign policy -- but little mention in Obama's State of the Union

The foreign policy headline of the State of the Union speech is how far the president went to avoid generating a national security headline. In one of the longest of recent SOTU's, the president's speechwriters devoted some of the shortest space and least consequential language to national security.

The only national security news item was buried deep in a paragraph, masked with oblique language: the proposal to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Getting a Congress battered by health care and cap-and-trade to take up this controversial issue in an election year may require a larger expenditure of presidential political capital than Obama allotted in this one speech.

Most telling was the attempt to spin the Iran situation. Obama's Iran strategy has stalled. The diplomatic overtures, spurned. The international coalition, frayed and paralyzed. Even ardent supporters of Obama's Iran gambits are saying enough is enough. Most experts believe that 2010 will be the year of decision on Iran. Nothing in the SOTU speech hints that Obama's advisors are girding to prepare Americans and our partners for that debate.  

This will be a very consequential year for U.S. foreign policy, but little of that is foreshadowed in this speech.


Shadow Government

State of the Union: Obama's national security rhetoric bogs him down

President Obama faced a tough task in the State of the Union speech, presiding as he does over a still-stagnant economy and domestic political discord. So it is not surprising, and even appropriate, that foreign policy would not be a main theme. But even so, it was noteworthy just how little attention he devoted to national security issues. And the comments he did make -- which felt crammed in towards the end -- focused more on the goals of drawing down our troop deployments than on victory in Afghanistan and Iraq. He introduced the national security section by rhetorically targeting his own critics, with a defensive-sounding plea to "put aside schoolyard taunts about who's tough." Which he followed in the next paragraph by noting the hundreds of al Qaeda members that in the last year "have been captured or killed -- far more than in 2008." The elimination of the threat from hundreds of al Qaeda terrorists and supporters is a laudable achievement; why cheapen it with what sounds like, well, a taunting comparison to his predecessor?

In sum, this State of the Union comes from a president still struggling to reconcile his lofty campaign hopes with the hard realities of governing, and the pressing demands of domestic politics with his inescapable responsibilities as commander in chief.