Shadow Government

America's TBD Foreign Policy

When it comes to foreign policy, President Obama in his State of the Union address said little, but his words spoke volumes. Just days after Secretary of State John Kerry sought at the World Economic Forum to defend the Obama Administration against mounting charges of disengagement, the president's remarks reinforced the impression of an administration lacking a foreign policy vision.

The impulse to downplay foreign policy in an election year in which the economy and domestic issues weigh heavily on the minds of the American people is understandable.  But to do so is misguided. 

The international backdrop against which President Obama delivered his remarks was one of tremendous tumult, likely only to grow more chaotic in the coming year and certain to impact American interests and prosperity. In Asia, signs of increasing tension between U.S. allies and an increasingly confident China dominate discussion, even as worries about instability in North Korea mount and a political crisis in Thailand deepens. In the Middle East, the Syrian civil war continues to exact a heavy toll in lives and roil the region, while attracting growing ranks of extremists who also pose a threat to Iraq, Lebanon, and more far-flung locales. 

In Europe, unrest has once again gripped Ukraine, many of whose citizens worry about a return to the Russian orbit. In South America, Venezuela and Argentina court economic catastrophe, which has contributed to the deep shudders convulsing emerging markets in recent days. With difficult diplomacy on Iran and Syria, elections in places like Turkey, Iraq, Brazil, and Indonesia, and a far-from-certain path to economic recovery all looming in 2014, these challenges are unlikely to abate soon.

In the face of this context of global turmoil and uncertainty, President Obama's offering was modest. Rather than the "renewal of American leadership" he referred to in his 2012 speech, or the ambitions to "shape the world" of 2011, the President Obama briefly outlined an international agenda that was largely inward-looking and defensive, rather than proactive or positive.    

On the Middle East -- typically the foreign policy topic which garners the most presidential attention in State of the Union speeches of late -- the diminution of hope and ambition in comparison to the president's speeches of past years was stark. This reflects not only the hard realities of the region, but of the administration's inability thus far to match its rhetoric with decisive, effective policy. That the President found himself in the remarkable position of threatening to veto Iran sanctions -- something that would have been unthinkable in prior years -- reflects the deep skepticism he faces in Washington and among our allies in the Middle East and beyond regarding his administration's commitment to defending shared interests in the region.

This skepticism -- that the U.S. is increasingly reluctant to provide leadership, whether on political or economic issues -- is heard not just in the Middle East but among our allies in Asia, Europe, and around the world. Despite claims one often hears to the contrary, our allies do not welcome disengagement by the U.S., but rather worry about the consequences that American diffidence or passivity would have for stability in their regions.

Americans are right to be concerned about the sustainability of U.S. global commitments, especially in a time of sluggish growth. But it is wrong to respond to these worries with false choices -- to pose war as the alternative to a particular diplomatic deal, to pose aggressive unilateralism as the alternative to passivity, or to pose doing everything as the alternative to a too-modest approach. This inhibits rather than encourages a much-needed debate about American vital interests overseas and the most effective, economical strategy for advancing them. Such a strategy -- one which shepherds rather than dissipates US influence, cultivates rather than alienates U.S. allies, and deters rather than encourages adversaries -- is sorely needed. 

The president did not offer such a strategy in the State of the Union address, and likely had no intention of doing so given his other priorities. But if there is one foreign policy lesson to be drawn from recent years, it is that inaction and delay have consequences -- the world continues to roil, and will not wait patiently for America to resume our mantle of leadership.

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Shadow Government

Obama’s State of the Union: Checking Boxes and Discovering America

As had been widely expected, President Obama devoted the bulk of his State of the Union address to domestic issues. In so doing, he remained faithful to his long-standing promise to do some "nation building here at home." In turn, that has meant a gradual withdrawal of American leadership worldwide: "leading from behind" in Libya, pivoting away from Europe and the Middle East while underfunding the forces meant to buttress the U.S. presence in Asia, abstaining from any meaningful role in support of the Syrian rebellion, and forging ahead with a withdrawal from Afghanistan that could unleash the same fissiparous forces that now plague Iraq.

The president asserted that he would not send troops in harm's way "unless it is truly necessary" but gave no indication as to what contingencies might be deemed "necessary." Obama was unequivocal in asserting that he would not authorize large scale deployments for "open-ended conflicts," though how he would determine when a conflict is not open-ended was far less clear. He also asserted that the United States would no longer be on a "permanent war footing," which might come as a surprise to the 99 percent of Americans who are not in the military and whose lives have barely been disrupted by thirteen years of conflict overseas.

The president devoted a considerable part of his brief remarks on national security to the challenge of countering terrorism -- he refrained from calling it "war" -- but did not outline exactly how he would meet that challenge. Other threats, apart from brief references to cyber and the challenge posed by Iran's relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons, hardly received any mention. Obama's remarks regarding Iran mentioned force only as a backdrop to his emphasis on "giving diplomacy a chance." In fact, the president was at his most forceful when promising to veto any congressional attempt to interfere with his diplomatic strategy by imposing, or even threatening to impose, new sanctions on Iran. Obama insisted that he would be the first to restore sanctions if Iran did not concede to curbing its nuclear weapons program. But he was far less emphatic regarding his likely response if Iran made some concessions that might be reversed at a future date.

Similarly, the president checked off several foreign policy boxes without much conviction. He called Israel a Jewish state. He called for a Palestinian state. He voiced his support for Syria's opposition and claimed credit for pressuring Syria to relinquish its chemical weapons, though Vladimir Putin might have a different view on that score. He made a brief reference to democracy movements in Tunisia and Burma but conveniently ignored the disaster that has been American policy toward Egypt. Europe, Africa, and Latin America all got a mention. No continent was left behind.

The president certainly stirred the emotions of all who witnessed him praise Sgt. First Class Cory Remsburg. His promise to provide more support to veterans, including providing better mental health services, is certainly welcome. But he only spoke in vague terms about "investing in capabilities" that America's men and women in uniform would "need in future missions." Other than drones, to which he did devote some attention, it remained unclear capabilities he meant.

Perhaps the president's most important message, really an acknowledgment, was that "no other country in the world does what we do." It marked a departure from his earlier assertions that the United States was like any other country. It took him five years in office, but Obama has finally recognized what the overwhelming majority of his fellow citizens have known all along: that America is truly exceptional and that there is not now -- nor has there ever been -- any other nation like it on the face of the earth.

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images