Fine Words

Sure, Obama talks the talk. But now what?

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 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.

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