Stephen M. Walt

The State of the Union Speech: What I’d like to hear but won’t

The State of the Union Speech: What I’d like to hear but won’t

I don’t expect President Obama to devote much time to foreign policy issues during his State of the Union address tomorrow, because other topics (health care, the economy, regulating Wall Street, etc.) are causing him the most trouble these days. Plus, if he was going to talk a lot about foreign policy, what exactly could he say? That we are making great strides in Afghanistan and Pakistan? Nope. That his Cairo speech has transformed our standing in the Middle East and brought us to the brink of Middle East peace? Hardly. That we have turned the corner on climate change, nuclear arms reductions, or relations with Iran? Um … not exactly. That relations with allies like Japan have never been better? Well, no. That the Guantanamo prison has been closed on schedule, as he promised a year ago? Er. … not quite. When you look at the list, you can see why he wants to talk about a discretionary spending freeze and other exciting topics like that.

To be fair, the absence of tangible achievements isn’t entirely Barack’s fault. As I’ve written elsewhere, there were few low-hanging fruit when he took office, and nobody should have expected him to fix all of these difficult challenges in a single year or even in a single term. (You may even recall that back when he assumed office, he warned us that it would take time to repair all that was broken). So even if he had done everything right — and he hasn’t — a lot of big-ticket items on his foreign policy agenda were going to defy easy solution.

But what would I like to hear him say on Wednesday night? If I may indulge in a bit of (unrealistic) fantasy for the moment, here’s an announcement he could make that would really make me sit up and take notice, and restore some of my flagging enthusiasm for his presidency. After the usual bromides about the challenges we face, our global responsibilities, our lofty ideals, the sacrifices made by our fighting men and women, the heartbreaking devastation in Haiti, etc., imagine him continuing as follows:

  • "Since I became president one year ago, no responsibility has weighed more heavily upon me than the protection of the American people and the preservation of our national security. Yet after a year in office, I have also discovered that this is a subject where conventional wisdom reigns supreme, and where it is difficult for creative new ideas to get a hearing. There is in fact little difference between Republicans and Democrats on most foreign policy issues: Both parties believe that the United States is beset by many ominous dangers, that it must continue to spend more on national security than the rest of the world combined, and that it has the right and the obligation to intervene in other countries whenever it wishes."
  • "And I have discovered that few members of the foreign policy establishment ever question whether these beliefs and the policies they inspire may be making us both less secure in the world and less well-off here at home. There is little genuine debate about foreign policy alternatives inside the Beltway, and some critical subjects remain taboo. As president, I have sought to encourage open debate and discussion within my administration, but even I have found it difficult to push our policy debates outside rather well-worn lines."
  • "Make no mistake: If America is going to respond effectively to the global challenges of this century, we need to have a more open debate about the strategic choices that we have made in the past and the policies we are committed to today. We need to ask if these choices and commitments still make sense for us now. We need to consider whether America is really more secure if it continues to pile up debt, continues to deny millions of citizens the same health insurance that other wealthy countries provide for their people, and freezes discretionary spending here at home while keeping military spending sacrosanct. We need to ask whether trying to engineer the lives of some 200 million Muslims in Afghanistan and Pakistan is necessary, or whether it is in fact a fool’s errand. We need to consider how to rebuild the real foundations of America’s global leadership — our economy, our infrastructure, our educational system, and our moral principles-instead of equating security primarily with our capacity to blow things up via remote-control."
  • "These are not easy questions, and reasonable people can and will disagree about the answers. Yet despite having assembled an experienced and remarkably talented foreign policy team, I have found it hard to get clear and compelling answers to these questions or even to elicit much debate about them. Accordingly, I have decided to appoint an informal "Team B" to provide me with an alternative strategic vision over the remainder of my first term. This group will not have formal governing authority, but will provide me and my national security team with an alternative perspective on key foreign policy and strategic questions." 
  • "I am pleased to announce that this advisory panel will be chaired by Ambassador Charles B. Freeman, one of our finest and most experienced diplomats and a remarkably creative and independent thinker. The other members of Team B will include Professor Robert J. Art of Brandeis University, Professor Barry Posen of MIT, Professor Juan Cole of the University of Michigan, Professor John Mueller of Ohio State University, Dr. Gerhard Caspar, former president of Stanford University, Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation, former NSC official Hillary Mann Leverett, former UN Assistant Secretary-General and Harvard Professor John G. Ruggie, Dr. Cindy Williams, the former director of the Congressional Budget Office’s National Security division, Paul Pillar of Georgetown University, independent blogger Glenn Greenwald, and Foreign Policy magazine editor Moises Naim."
  • "I am forming this advisory panel to supplement the analysis and advice that I receive from my regular foreign policy team, in whom I retain the greatest confidence.  Team B is not intended to replace the normal policymaking process; its assignment is to make sure that we are asking the right questions and that we do not adhere to misguided policies simply because they have become familiar."

Do I expect to hear those words — or anything remotely like them — on Wednesday?  Of course not; I said it was a fantasy, remember? I don’t even expect to hear Obama admit that anything might be wrong with his approach to international affairs; that’s not what the SOTU speech is for and not even this president readily admits error. The safe bet? Obama’s foreign policy will continue along the same well-trod paths and with the same disappointing results.

P.S. Speaking of national security, I’ll be spending Thursday and Friday as a guest of the U.S. Navy, observing a naval exercise. I expect to be duly impressed, but will do my best to maintain my scholarly independence. I won’t have my laptop with me, however, so I won’t be blogging between tomorrow and Friday.  Anchors aweigh!