Barack Obama's State of the Union address makes one thing clear: The world is no longer America's problem.
If you want to know what an American president’s foreign policy is likely to be, particularly in a second term, don’t listen to his State of the Union speech. You’d probably have more luck playing with Tarot cards, or reading tea leaves or goat entrails.
But not this year. Barack Obama’s fourth such address left a trail of foreign-policy cookie crumbs that lead directly to some pretty clear, if hardly surprising or revolutionary, conclusions. His first term contained no spectacular successes (save killing Osama bin Laden), but no spectacular failures either. And more than likely, that’s what the president will settle for in a second, even as the Arab world burns and rogues like Iran and North Korea brandish new weapons. He’s nothing if not a cautious man.
Behold: I am the Extricator in Chief
Afghanistan — the "good war" — has been pretty much MIA in Obama’s speeches since he became president. He’s alternated between spending a few words on the mission there (2009) or a paragraph (2010, 2011, 2012). If his words have been brief, the message has been stunningly clear: It’s about the leaving. And tonight was no exception. Not more than two minutes in, the president spoke about America’s men and women coming home from Afghanistan.
Obama’s signature is indeed that of the extricator. And he broke the code early (the 2009 surge was designed politically to get in so that he could get out with a clearer conscience). He is the president who has wound down the longest and among the most profitless wars in American history, where victory was never defined by whether we can win, but by when can we leave. It is his legacy, and one about which he has reason to be proud. Obama has left himself and his military commanders plenty of discretion about the pace of extrication. But that’s fine with the president so long as they’re heading for the exits.
Not the Destroyer and Rebuilder of Worlds
Surprise, surprise: There was scant mention of Syria in the president’s speech — just one throwaway line about supporting Syria’s opposition. Obama did not disengage from Iraq and Afghanistan only to plunge America into new black holes in the Middle East.
Obama isn’t worried about boots on the ground in Syria. That was never on the table. Instead the question is this: Given the uncertainty about the end state in Syria and the risks of providing serious weapons to the rebels (and a no-fly zone) that might alter the arc of the fight against the regime, the president saw and continues to see no purpose in America providing arms of marginal utility. That course would either expose him to be truly weak and ineffectual or lead to calls to do more. So he’s going to provide non-lethal support and is apparently prepared to take the hits from critics who see the president’s policy as passive, cruel, and unforgiving, particularly now that we know that members of his own cabinet clearly wanted to do more.
The Iranian nuclear issue, the other potential tar baby in the SOTU, followed a pretty predictable rising arc of concern in the list of presidential foreign-policy worries. In 2009, in Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress (a speech some regard as a SOTU), Iran wasn’t even mentioned. In the 2010 SOTU, Obama threatened that if Iran ignored its international obligations, there would be consequences; in 2011, he did the same; and in 2012, he made it clear that he would prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and take no option off the table.
Obama repeated half of what he said in 2012 about preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, but instead of saying all options were on the table, he spoke of the importance of diplomacy. I suspect he’ll go to extreme lengths to avoid war, and won’t greenlight an Israeli attack either until the arc of diplomacy has run its course. And then Obama would likely act only if the mullahs push the envelope by accelerating their uranium enrichment program and other military aspects of the nuclear enterprise.
Seizing the Nuclear High Road with Little to Lose
Even as he confronts a real bomb in North Korea (very bad options there) and a potential one in Iran (bad options there too), Obama is trying to make good on a longstanding commitment to reduce America’s own nuclear arsenal. Backed by the military chiefs and likely by the public too (getting rid of nukes equals saving money), but opposed by Republicans in Congress, Obama will try to work around the political obstacles by seeking a deal with yes … you got it … his old friend Vlad Putin. It’s worth a try. If Putin balks or Republicans get in the way, the president can always advocate unilateral cuts — not something he wants to do. But if he can’t have his way on nukes, he can always blame it on the Russians and the Republicans with little to lose. The road to getting rid of nukes is a long one. Let the next guy (or gal) worry about it.
A Little Leg on Palestine?
Obama hasn’t mentioned the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a SOTU speech since 2009. And that’s no coincidence. His own poorly thought-through initial effort crashed and burned, leaving the president pretty frustrated and annoyed with both Israelis and Palestinians, particularly Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But hey, that was then. A second-term president has committed himself early in 2013 to a trip to Israel and has an Energizer bunny in Secretary of State John Kerry, who wants to do the right thing and keep the two-state solution alive.
Obama clearly kept his distance from the issue again on Tuesday night. He spoke of standing with Israel to pursue peace, but didn’t mention Palestinians or the peace process. He mentioned his own trip to the Middle East, but missed an opportunity to give what might be a trip to the region by his new secretary of state higher profile.
It’s just as well. The paradox of the Israeli-Palestinian issue is that it’s too complicated to implement right now and too important to abandon. It’s in this space that Obama will be forced to operate. And while the odds of success are low, Obama will be tempted in his final term to do something bold, perhaps laying out a U.S. plan of parameters on the key final-status issues.
It’s the Middle Class, Not the Middle East
Spoiler alert: Barack Obama might still be a consequential foreign-policy president if he’s lucky, willful, and skillful. But it’s his domestic legacy that will make or break his presidency. Health care — his signature legacy issue — will look much better if the economy improves, driven by a revived housing market and rising employment, and of course if some broader deal can be struck on entitlements and taxes. Immigration reform and gun-control legislation driven by a functional bipartisanship would cement that legacy. He’d be an historic rather than a great president.
Two clocks tick down in a president’s second term: the drive for legacy and the reality of lame duckery. Obama’s political capital will diminish quickly. Where, how, and on what he wants to spend it is critical. The Middle East is violent and volatile and may yet suck him in, but if he can avoid it, he’ll try. This was a State of the Union address that stressed fixing America’s broken house, not chasing around the world trying to fix everyone else’s. The future of America isn’t Cairo or Damascus; it’s Chicago and Detroit.