Banish any thought of Obama going soft on foreign policy. His third State of the Union address was wrapped in the flag of martial victory.
- By Michael A. CohenMichael A. Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation.
If there is one regular foreign policy refrain that is heard from the crop of Republican presidential aspirants it is that the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has weakened the United States and American power on the global stage.
In last night’s State of the Union address, President Barack Obama demonstrated why this might be a flawed and challenging political strategy. You see, in case you’d forgotten, Barack Obama ordered the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
The president didn’t just mention this perhaps signal foreign policy accomplishment of his presidency — he bookended his speech with it. That said, Obama was hardly reticent to talk about his other significant accomplishments in foreign policy. He started off the address with a reference to the pull-out of U.S. troops from Iraq; the winding down of the war in Afghanistan; and the successful U.S. military intervention in Libya. He spoke of the "renewal of American leadership," and pledged that "America is back," a none-too-subtle hit at the Bush administration. He also played up the vitality of U.S. alliances with Europe and Israel as well as ongoing efforts to isolate Iran and stop its nuclear program. (Not mentioned was that the Afghan drawdown followed a rather uncertain Afghan surge or that the president arguably ran roughshod over congressional prerogatives during the Libya adventure.)
What came across in the State of the Union was the politically pleasing notion that, under Obama’s leadership, America is more secure, more respected, and in a stronger global position. "Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned," said Obama, "doesn’t know what they’re talking about." All of this seemed oriented to not only play up Obama’s foreign policy strengths, but as a direct rebuttal to GOP charges of fecklessness. After all, this message is literally the opposite of what voters who have tuned into one of the 18 and counting Republican debates have heard about this president.
Still, the real star of the show was the president’s repeated invocation of the bin Laden raid. For all of Obama’s other foreign policy achievements, many of which — like the New START agreement, the expansion of the G-20, the reset with Russia, and the pivot to Asia — will likely be more consequential over the long haul, the one that has the greatest political saliency is quite obviously the killing of bin Laden and the administration’s success in taking out top al Qaeda lieutenants. It’s been a very long time in American politics since a Democratic president has been able to brag about a military success along these lines and Obama seems inclined to milk it for everything it’s worth.
Indeed, Obama even went so far as to link the success of the bin Laden raid to his vision for America:
The mission only succeeded because every member of that unit trusted each other — because you can’t charge up those stairs, into darkness and danger, unless you know that there’s someone behind you, watching your back.
So it is with America. Each time I look at that flag, I’m reminded that our destiny is stitched together like those 50 stars and those 13 stripes. No one built this country on their own. This nation is great because we built it together. This nation is great because we worked as a team. This nation is great because we get each other’s backs. And if we hold fast to that truth, in this moment of trial, there is no challenge too great; no mission too hard. As long as we’re joined in common purpose, as long as we maintain our common resolve, our journey moves forward, our future is hopeful, and the state of our Union will always be strong.
Obama was making a direct link between the ethos of those who killed America’s No. 1 enemy and his own progressive notion on what are the responsibilities of each citizen to the betterment of the country — and of the role of government to lend a hand. This is clearly smart politics and pretty effective speechwirting. That said, getting a democracy as unruly as ours — much less Congress — to function like a well-drilled SEAL team is a tad unrealistic. This is particularly true when one considers that the U.S. military, which Obama venerated as the finest institution in the country, is also probably the single most undemocratic institution in American society — and purposely so. Indeed, there was something a bit off-putting, albeit unsurprising, about listening to the president so brazenly cloaking his domestic vision for the country, and his key campaign messages, in a military action of which all Americans — Democrats and Republicas — can feel a shared sense of pride.
Nonetheless, it does provide compelling evidence that Obama will run aggressively on his foreign policy success and his record as commander-in-chief. For liberals hoping for perhaps a less militarist message and a focus on diplomacy and soft power rather than the use of force as lodestars of American power … well, last night wasn’t quite their evening. That whole "changing the mindset" of U.S. foreign policy that Obama talked about in 2008 may have to wait a few more years.
Of course, none of this will stop Republicans from making the claim that the president has weakened America — and some will say they have truth on their side — but then again, they didn’t kill the man responsible for Sept. 11.
That was Barack Obama, just in case you’d forgotten.