- By Uri Friedman
Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland.
As John Harwood notes at the New York Times, tonight’s address by President Obama was as much a "state of the campaign" as it was a State of the Union. But while the president did focus on hot-button issues such as jobs and the economy (he called keeping the American dream alive the "defining issue of our time"), he also spent considerable time on foreign policy. Here are some of the highlights:
Obama has started all three of his State of the Union addresses with a call for unity. But he’s done so in different ways. In 2010, Obama meditated on America’s time-tested ability to transcend hardship. In 2011, he reflected on how the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords had reminded Americans of the ties that bind them together.
This year, Obama began with foreign policy, noting how the American military has withdrawn from Iraq, killed Osama bin Laden, taken out some of al Qaeda’s top lieutenants, and halted the Taliban’s momentum in Afghanistan. He urged Americans to collaborate on education, energy, security, and the economy just as U.S. soldiers do every day:
These achievements are a testament to the courage, selflessness, and teamwork of America’s Armed Forces. At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, they exceed all expectations. They’re not consumed with personal ambition. They don’t obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together.
He circled back to this theme at the end of the speech, conveniently working in once again that, yes, bin Laden is dead:
One of my proudest possessions is the flag that the SEAL Team took with them on the mission to get bin Laden. On it are each of their names. Some may be Democrats. Some may be Republicans. But that doesn’t matter…. So it is with America.
Some took issue with the analogy. As the National Review‘s Rich Lowry tweeted, "A democratic society can never be like a well-trained SEAL team."
FIGHT AGAINST TERRORISM
In each one of his State of the Union addresses, Obama has linked the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with the fight against al Qaeda, arguing that withdrawing from Iraq has enabled America to dismantle terrorist networks and keep the Taliban from turning Afghanistan into a safe haven for those who want to attack the United States. In 2010, Obama explained that "as we take the fight to al Qaeda, we are resposibly leaving Iraq to its people." In 2011, he turned to al Qaeda immediately after proclaiming that the Iraq war was coming to an end. This year was no different:
Ending the Iraq war has allowed us to strike decisive blows against our enemies. From Pakistan to Yemen, the al Qaeda operatives who remain are scrambling, knowing that they can’t escape the reach of the United States of America.
From this position of strength, we’ve begun to wind down the war in Afghanistan…. This transition to Afghan lead will continue, and we will build an enduring partnership with Afghanistan, so that it is never again a source of attacks against America.
Obama devoted one-and-a-half paragraphs to the uprisings in the Middle East but didn’t explicitly mention America’s role in the military intervention in Libya that toppled Muammar al-Qaddafi — the centerpiece of what some have described as the Obama administration’s doctrine of "leading from behind."
The takeaway line may have been Obama’s singling out of Syria:
In Syria, I have no doubt that the Assad regime will soon discover that the forces of change can’t be reversed, and that human dignity can’t be denied.
But Obama did not say whether his administration would take any more concrete steps to help Syrian President Bashar al-Assad see the light.
During an election year in which the Republican candidates have been taking a hard line on Iran’s nuclear weapons program, Obama talked tough on Iran, using words that seemed a far cry from his declaration in Cairo in 2009 that he was willing to pursue talks with Iran "without preconditions on the basis of mutual respect." Here’s what he said tonight:
The regime is more isolated than ever before; its leaders are faced with crippling sanctions, and as long as they shirk their responsibilities, this pressure will not relent. Let there be no doubt: America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal. But a peaceful resolution of this issue is still possible, and far better, and if Iran changes course and meets its obligations, it can rejoin the community of nations.
Obama also had harsh words — wrapped in a new presidential initiative, no less — for China, which has been a favorite target for this year’s crop of Republican candidates as well:
I will go anywhere in the world to open new markets for American products. And I will not stand by when our competitors don’t play by the rules. We’ve brought trade cases against China at nearly twice the rate as the last administration — and it’s made a difference. Over a thousand Americans are working today because we stopped a surge in Chinese tires. But we need to do more. It’s not right when another country lets our movies, music, and software be pirated. It’s not fair when foreign manufacturers have a leg up on ours only because they’re heavily subsidized.
Tonight, I’m announcing the creation of a Trade Enforcement Unit that will be charged with investigating unfair trade practices in countries like China. There will be more inspections to prevent counterfeit or unsafe goods from crossing our borders.
While Obama made one of his few ad libs of the night when it came to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — noting that "our iron-clad — and I mean iron-clad — commitment to Israel’s security has meant the closest military cooperation between our two countries in history," he didn’t say anything more about the Middle East peace process. But that actually shouldn’t be surprising. Obama didn’t address the conflict at all in his previous two State of the Union addresses. President George W. Bush, by contrast, discussed Israeli-Palestinian peace in 5 of his 7 State of the Union addresses.
The Obama administration’s much-vaunted strategic pivot to Asia merited only ten words: "We’ve made it clear that America is a Pacific power." What does that say about America’s true geopolitical priorities? Pundits, have at it.
Republican rivals have tried to paint Obama as a kind of American exceptionalism denier. As Mitt Romney put it, "Our president thinks America’s in decline. It is if he’s president. It’s not if I’m president. This is going to be an American century."
Obama shot back on Tuesday evening, declaring
that, "America remains the one indispensable nation in world affairs — and as long as I’m president, I intend to keep it that way." The line recalled President Bill Clinton’s exhortation in his 1997 State of the Union for Americans to "do what it takes to remain the indispensible nation, to keep America strong, secure, and prosperous for another 50 years."
In his State of the Union address, Obama proclaimed that "America is back" and that "anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned doesn’t know what they’re talking about."
Lastly, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the most cringe-inducing moment of the night: Obama’s quip that, in the case of a bad regulation classifying milk as an oil, "I guess it was worth crying over spilled milk." The lame joke conjured up memories of Obama complaining in his 2011 State of the Union address that the Interior Department oversees salmon when they’re in fresh water while the Commerce Department handles them when they’re in saltwater. "I hear it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked," he added.
Yes, the byzantine workings of government may be bad for the American people. But boy do they soften up a crowd!