Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Fine Words

Sure, Obama talks the talk. But now what?

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

The president did not surprise. He is a powerful speaker, and he showed it yet again in his State of the Union address. His voice was at its most resonant when he wrapped himself in the flag and milked the Bin Laden operation for all it was worth. But there really wasn't very much behind the high flown rhetoric.

President Obama bashed the Chinese on trade, but said nary a word about their military buildup. He claimed that America's commitment to Israel's security was "ironclad" -- he repeated the term -- but made no reference to how his less-than-amicable relationship with Israel's prime minister would foster that security, nor why his standing with the people of that country is lower than that of every president since Jimmy Carter. He claimed that our alliances were stronger than ever, but glossed over the fact that there is deep unease in Europe over the administration's much ballyhooed "pivot" to Asia. As for that pivot, to which the president did refer, it currently amounts to the redeployment, on a rotating basis, of a grand total of 2,500 Marines to Australia. 

President Obama asserted that America's influence worldwide was greater than ever, overlooking negative opinion polls throughout the Arab world and South Asia. He made only a passing reference to Latin America (counting Rio among other world capitals -- did he or his speechwriters forget Brasilia?). And he made none at all to Canada, whose pipeline he undermined only the other week.

The president did not surprise. He is a powerful speaker, and he showed it yet again in his State of the Union address. His voice was at its most resonant when he wrapped himself in the flag and milked the Bin Laden operation for all it was worth. But there really wasn’t very much behind the high flown rhetoric.

President Obama bashed the Chinese on trade, but said nary a word about their military buildup. He claimed that America’s commitment to Israel’s security was "ironclad" — he repeated the term — but made no reference to how his less-than-amicable relationship with Israel’s prime minister would foster that security, nor why his standing with the people of that country is lower than that of every president since Jimmy Carter. He claimed that our alliances were stronger than ever, but glossed over the fact that there is deep unease in Europe over the administration’s much ballyhooed "pivot" to Asia. As for that pivot, to which the president did refer, it currently amounts to the redeployment, on a rotating basis, of a grand total of 2,500 Marines to Australia. 

President Obama asserted that America’s influence worldwide was greater than ever, overlooking negative opinion polls throughout the Arab world and South Asia. He made only a passing reference to Latin America (counting Rio among other world capitals — did he or his speechwriters forget Brasilia?). And he made none at all to Canada, whose pipeline he undermined only the other week.

The president said very little about his defense budget cuts. He did not explain how America would retain all its commitments worldwide with a shrunken force that his own secretary of defense has lamented. He did not, of course, note that defense is paying for half the deficit reduction while its budget constitutes a fifth of all federal spending each year, when off-budget entitlements are counted, as they should be. 

The mark of a great speaker and of a great debater is the ability to gloss over uncomfortable facts while blowing more favorable ones out of proportion. But great speakers and great debaters are not necessarily great presidents. President Obama is certainly a great speaker and a great debater; on national security in particular, however, he has thus far into his term of office fallen far short of being a great president, or, for that matter, even a particularly good one.

Dov Zakheim is the former Under Secretary of Defense.

More from Foreign Policy

Soldiers of the P18 Gotland Regiment of the Swedish Army camouflage an armoured vehicle during a field exercise near Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland on May 17.
Soldiers of the P18 Gotland Regiment of the Swedish Army camouflage an armoured vehicle during a field exercise near Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland on May 17.

What Are Sweden and Finland Thinking?

European leaders have reassessed Russia’s intentions and are balancing against the threat that Putin poses to the territorial status quo. 

Ukrainian infantry take part in a training exercise with tanks near Dnipropetrovsk oblast, Ukraine, less than 50 miles from the front lines, on May 9.
Ukrainian infantry take part in a training exercise with tanks near Dnipropetrovsk oblast, Ukraine, less than 50 miles from the front lines, on May 9.

The Window To Expel Russia From Ukraine Is Now

Russia is digging in across the southeast.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken participate in a virtual summit with the leaders of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue countries at the White House in Washington on March 12.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken participate in a virtual summit with the leaders of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue countries at the White House in Washington on March 12.

Why China Is Paranoid About the Quad

Beijing has long lived with U.S. alliances in Asia, but a realigned India would change the game.

Members of the National Defence Training Association of Finland attend a training.
Members of the National Defence Training Association of Finland attend a training.

Finns Show Up for Conscription. Russians Dodge It.

Two seemingly similar systems produce very different militaries.