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A war president’s peacetime speech

As Dan Drezner, Josh Rogin and other have already noted, last night’s State of the Union address was, as expected, remarkably light on foreign policy. Drezner argues that this is because a president focusing on events beyond U.S. borders will, by definition, seem out of touch with the concerns of ordinary voters in a time ...

TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images
TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

As Dan Drezner, Josh Rogin and other have already noted, last night’s State of the Union address was, as expected, remarkably light on foreign policy. Drezner argues that this is because a president focusing on events beyond U.S. borders will, by definition, seem out of touch with the concerns of ordinary voters in a time of economic distress.

But it is still striking that in a time when the United States has troops fighting two wars, one of which the president has recently expanded, the nation’s ongoing military engagements got such short shrift in the speech. Here’s what the president had to say about Afghanistan, where he recently committed an additional 30,000 U.S. troops:

And in Afghanistan, we’re increasing our troops and training Afghan security forces so they can begin to take the lead in July of 2011, and our troops can begin to come home. (Applause.) We will reward good governance, work to reduce corruption, and support the rights of all Afghans — men and women alike. (Applause.) We’re joined by allies and partners who have increased their own commitments, and who will come together tomorrow in London to reaffirm our common purpose. There will be difficult days ahead. But I am absolutely confident we will succeed.

I don’t think the speech needed to be dominated by war talk or that the domestic agenda Obama discussed was trivial, but I do think that a (admittedly reluctant) war president owes the public a reminder of why the war is worth fighting, not a brief laundry list of updates and vague goals. Compare it to Harry Truman’s 1951 State of the Union, which put the escalating fight in Korea right at the top:  

As we meet here today, American soldiers are fighting a bitter campaign in Korea. We pay tribute to their courage, devotion, and gallantry.

Our men are fighting, alongside their United Nations allies, because they know, as we do, that the aggression in Korea is part of the attempt of the Russian Communist dictatorship to take over the world, step by step.

Our men are fighting a long way from home, but they are fighting for our lives and our liberties. They are fighting to protect our right to meet here today–our right to govern ourselves as a free nation.

The threat of world conquest by Soviet Russia endangers our liberty and endangers the kind of world in which the free spirit of man can survive. This threat is aimed at all peoples who strive to win or defend their own freedom and national independence. 

He would also lead with Korea the following year. Here’s how Lyndon Johnson started in 1966: 

Our Nation tonight is engaged in a brutal and bitter conflict in Vietnam. Later on I want to discuss that struggle in some detail with you. It just must be the center of our concerns.

But we will not permit those who fire upon us in Vietnam to win a victory over the desires and the intentions of all the American people. This Nation is mighty enough, its society is healthy enough, its people are strong enough, to pursue our goals in the rest of the world while still building a Great Society here at home. 

Even as public anger at the war and his handling of it grew, Johnson continued to make a centerpiece of his addresses.

Whatever you think of these presidents, the wars they oversaw, or the goals they describe, their speeches at least conveyed that these military conflicts were at the "center of their concerns." In his early addresses, George W. Bush would generally begin with a heavy focus the war on terror and Iraq, but he emphasized these issues less and less later on.

War is typically considered an extraordinary event, worthy of commanding the attention of both government and public. Today, judging by its cursory treatment in Obama’s speech, the blood and treasure that the United States is putting into Afghanistan seems very far from the center of the U.S. government’s concerns, just background noise for domestic policy debates. That may say less about Obama than how used to ongoing conflict the U.S. public has become over the past decade. 

 Twitter: @joshuakeating

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