Obama’s State of the Union: Checking Boxes and Discovering America

Obama’s State of the Union: Checking Boxes and Discovering America

As had been widely expected, President Obama devoted the bulk of his State of the Union address to domestic issues. In so doing, he remained faithful to his long-standing promise to do some "nation building here at home." In turn, that has meant a gradual withdrawal of American leadership worldwide: "leading from behind" in Libya, pivoting away from Europe and the Middle East while underfunding the forces meant to buttress the U.S. presence in Asia, abstaining from any meaningful role in support of the Syrian rebellion, and forging ahead with a withdrawal from Afghanistan that could unleash the same fissiparous forces that now plague Iraq.

The president asserted that he would not send troops in harm’s way "unless it is truly necessary" but gave no indication as to what contingencies might be deemed "necessary." Obama was unequivocal in asserting that he would not authorize large scale deployments for "open-ended conflicts," though how he would determine when a conflict is not open-ended was far less clear. He also asserted that the United States would no longer be on a "permanent war footing," which might come as a surprise to the 99 percent of Americans who are not in the military and whose lives have barely been disrupted by thirteen years of conflict overseas.

The president devoted a considerable part of his brief remarks on national security to the challenge of countering terrorism — he refrained from calling it "war" — but did not outline exactly how he would meet that challenge. Other threats, apart from brief references to cyber and the challenge posed by Iran’s relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons, hardly received any mention. Obama’s remarks regarding Iran mentioned force only as a backdrop to his emphasis on "giving diplomacy a chance." In fact, the president was at his most forceful when promising to veto any congressional attempt to interfere with his diplomatic strategy by imposing, or even threatening to impose, new sanctions on Iran. Obama insisted that he would be the first to restore sanctions if Iran did not concede to curbing its nuclear weapons program. But he was far less emphatic regarding his likely response if Iran made some concessions that might be reversed at a future date.

Similarly, the president checked off several foreign policy boxes without much conviction. He called Israel a Jewish state. He called for a Palestinian state. He voiced his support for Syria’s opposition and claimed credit for pressuring Syria to relinquish its chemical weapons, though Vladimir Putin might have a different view on that score. He made a brief reference to democracy movements in Tunisia and Burma but conveniently ignored the disaster that has been American policy toward Egypt. Europe, Africa, and Latin America all got a mention. No continent was left behind.

The president certainly stirred the emotions of all who witnessed him praise Sgt. First Class Cory Remsburg. His promise to provide more support to veterans, including providing better mental health services, is certainly welcome. But he only spoke in vague terms about "investing in capabilities" that America’s men and women in uniform would "need in future missions." Other than drones, to which he did devote some attention, it remained unclear capabilities he meant.

Perhaps the president’s most important message, really an acknowledgment, was that "no other country in the world does what we do." It marked a departure from his earlier assertions that the United States was like any other country. It took him five years in office, but Obama has finally recognized what the overwhelming majority of his fellow citizens have known all along: that America is truly exceptional and that there is not now — nor has there ever been — any other nation like it on the face of the earth.