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The State of the Union on foreign policy – Translated

Tonight The Cable brings you the second annual edition of our attempt to translate the foreign policy portions of President Obama’s State of the Union address: On Trade: "Before I took office, I made it clear that we would enforce our trade agreements, and that I would only sign deals that keep faith with American ...

Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images

Tonight The Cable brings you the second annual edition of our attempt to translate the foreign policy portions of President Obama's State of the Union address:

On Trade:

"Before I took office, I made it clear that we would enforce our trade agreements, and that I would only sign deals that keep faith with American workers, and promote American jobs.  That's what we did with Korea, and that's what I intend to do as we pursue agreements with Panama and Colombia, and continue our Asia Pacific and global trade talks."

Tonight The Cable brings you the second annual edition of our attempt to translate the foreign policy portions of President Obama’s State of the Union address:

On Trade:

"Before I took office, I made it clear that we would enforce our trade agreements, and that I would only sign deals that keep faith with American workers, and promote American jobs.  That’s what we did with Korea, and that’s what I intend to do as we pursue agreements with Panama and Colombia, and continue our Asia Pacific and global trade talks."

Translation: I always promised to talk big on trade and there’s no reason to stop now. We might actually get one FTA done this year…now that I don’t have Pelosi to worry about. But if you were expecting specifics from me on the rest of them, you might want to stop holding your breath. These things are riddled with political land mines and they will get done only if they don’t cost too much political capital.

On defense spending:

"The Secretary of Defense has also agreed to cut tens of billions of dollars in spending that he and his generals believe our military can do without."

Translation: I’m going to follow Gates’s lead here by pretending that proposed "cuts" to the defense budget are really cuts at all, rather than mentioning that Gates and I are actually asking for increased Pentagon funding. Ain’t semantics great?

On Iraq:

"Look to Iraq, where nearly 100,000 of our brave men and women have left with their heads held high; where American combat patrols have ended; violence has come down; and a new government has been formed. This year, our civilians will forge a lasting partnership with the Iraqi people, while we finish the job of bringing our troops out of Iraq. America’s commitment has been kept; the Iraq War is coming to an end."

Translation: I’m going to continue to take credit for the one foreign policy problem that actually seems to be getting better and better. But if Maliki turns out to be another Mubarak, boy are we in trouble then.

On Afghanistan:

"Thanks to our heroic troops and civilians, fewer Afghans are under the control of the insurgency. There will be tough fighting ahead, and the Afghan government will need to deliver better governance. But we are strengthening the capacity of the Afghan people and building an enduring partnership with them.  This year, we will work with nearly 50 countries to begin a transition to an Afghan lead. And this July, we will begin to bring our troops home."

Translation: We can control more space so long as we have tons of troops on the ground, but we know that isn’t going to solve the overall problem with Karzai. Either way, we’re going to have to try to put some lipstick on this pig and begin getting the heck out of there. But, for the meantime, let’s just keep confusing everybody by throwing around unclear dates that mark unclear milestones until we figure out what we really want to do.

On Pakistan:

"In Pakistan, al Qaeda’s leadership is under more pressure than at any point since 2001. Their leaders and operatives are being removed from the battlefield. Their safe-havens are shrinking. And we have sent a message from the Afghan border to the Arabian Peninsula to all parts of the globe: we will not relent, we will not waver, and we will defeat you."

Translation: Yes, we are killing people in Pakistan when we can find them and hit them with drones, but I’ll go ahead and gloss over the fact that our cooperation with Pakistan survives only as long as the Zardari government does.  We’ve proven to the Arab world that we can’t be scared into withdrawing out of the region. Now all we have to do is figure out how to withdraw from the region again.

On Iran and North Korea:

"Because of a diplomatic effort to insist that Iran meet its obligations, the Iranian government now faces tougher and tighter sanctions than ever before. And on the Korean peninsula, we stand with our ally South Korea, and insist that North Korea keeps its commitment to abandon nuclear weapons."

Translation: Here’s one sentence of lip service to each of the two perhaps most dangerous foreign policy problems without actually spelling out what I plan to do about either of them going forward. I can’t understand why our drive to stop them from building nukes isn’t working. I suppose if these  regimes don’t see it as in their interest to have positive relations with the United States, there isn’t much we can do.

On Latin America:

"This March, I will travel to Brazil, Chile, and El Salvador to forge new alliances for progress in the Americas."

Translation: I was going to have to go to South America sooner or later. I guess if I can spin a visit with the Chinese president so it looks like we get along with China, doing the same with these three governments shouldn’t be so difficult.

On Arab revolts:

"We saw that same desire to be free in Tunisia, where the will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator. And tonight, let us be clear: the United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people. We must never forget that the things we’ve struggled for, and fought for, live in the hearts of people everywhere. And we must always remember that the Americans who have borne the greatest burden in this struggle are the men and women who serve our country."

Translation: We haven’t pushed that whole "democracy" thing with Arab dictators but we can’t just come out and say we support their crackdowns on protesters, now can we? I guess I can burn the (former) government of Tunisia but I’ll stop short of mentioning the tear gassing of students in Egypt, lest my administration’s own complicity in supporting that government come into focus. Hey, I guess maybe we can put a positive spin on WikiLeaks after all.

On China, Guantanamo Bay, the Middle East peace process, Belarus, Cuba, development, foreign aid, the State Department, human rights, cyber warfare, the national export initiative, international currency, and climate change:

Nothing.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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