Forget the speech, focus on the policy

Forget the speech, focus on the policy

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.