State of the Union: The Promises Obama Did(n’t) Keep

If, like me, you sat down on Monday to read all of President Obama’s State of the Union addresses delivered since he took office in early 2009, you’d be forgiven for thinking that foreign policy has served as something of a footnote during his administration. But that would be far from the truth. Obama campaigned ...


If, like me, you sat down on Monday to read all of President Obama's State of the Union addresses delivered since he took office in early 2009, you'd be forgiven for thinking that foreign policy has served as something of a footnote during his administration.

If, like me, you sat down on Monday to read all of President Obama’s State of the Union addresses delivered since he took office in early 2009, you’d be forgiven for thinking that foreign policy has served as something of a footnote during his administration.

But that would be far from the truth. Obama campaigned on a platform largely designed to be the exact opposite of the Bush administration’s foreign policy. During the 2008 campaign, he pledged to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and to usher in a new era of cooperation on the world stage. While the financial crisis and the ensuing recession reset the Obama administration’s priorities, the president’s stated effort to bring the United States off a permanent war footing will surely occupy the future historians of the Obama White House. His collected State of the Union addresses capture the arc of Obama’s foreign policy initiatives: High hopes followed by a series of shattered illusions.

Here, ahead of his sixth such speech on Tuesday, is the story of Obama’s foreign policy, told in the form of an annotated State(s) of the Union.


"To overcome extremism, we must also be vigilant in upholding the values our troops defend – because there is no force in the world more powerful than the example of America. That is why I have ordered the closing of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, and will seek swift and certain justice for captured terrorists – because living our values doesn’t make us weaker, it makes us safer and it makes us stronger. And that is why I can stand here tonight and say without exception or equivocation that the United States of America does not torture."

Early in his presidency, Obama outlawed the use of so-called enhanced interrogation practices, a clear and important change from the Bush years, but his larger goal of closing the detention center at Guantanamo Bay remains unfulfilled. Stymied by bureaucratic difficulties and ultimately forced to a halt by Congress, the effort to close the prison that has become emblematic of Bush-era terror policies remains open.

"In words and deeds, we are showing the world that a new era of engagement has begun. For we know that America cannot meet the threats of this century alone, but the world cannot meet them without America. We cannot shun the negotiating table, nor ignore the foes or forces that could do us harm. We are instead called to move forward with the sense of confidence and candor that serious times demand."

"A new era of engagement." If there was ever a single phrase to capture the spirit of the early Obama foreign policy, this is it. Where his predecessor would go it alone in the world, Obama promised to engage with not only America’s friends but also her enemies. Has he delivered? In Libya, he certainly mustered an international coalition to depose Muammar al-Qaddafi. In Syria, he failed to win international support for striking back at Bashar al-Assad after his regime deployed chemical weapons. In Iran, though, the strategy paid off. The White House assembled a coalition of world powers, including countries like Russia and China that usually do the opposite of whatever Washington does, and managed to win their agreement to impose — and maintain — unprecedented sanctions that have largely decimated the Iranian economy. Those sanctions ultimately brought Iran to the negotiating table, clearing the way — potentially — for a peaceful end to Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions.

At the same time, Syria’s brutal civil war — and the White House’s uncertain response — casts a pall over his record on diplomacy. While it is unclear whether the use of military force would have helped unseat Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, Obama’s diplomatic efforts to end the conflict have so far proved futile. Members of the Assad regime and the opposition sat down together for the first time Friday, but the prospects for a deal appear exceedingly slim.

"And to respond to an economic crisis that is global in scope, we are working with the nations of the G-20 to restore confidence in our financial system, avoid the possibility of escalating protectionism, and spur demand for American goods in markets across the globe. For the world depends on us to have a strong economy, just as our economy depends on the strength of the world’s."

When historians begin to pass verdict on Obama’s time in the White House, they may well applaud him as a leader who managed to prevent the country from sliding into another economic depression. He succeeded in doing so, at least in part, because of his effective use of the global system of economic governance, such as the coordination of policies finalized at forums like the G20. As much as skeptics like to criticize the International Monetary Fund’s past efforts to prop up ailing economies in the developing world, there is little doubt that the IMF and its sister agencies in fact worked quite well during the financial crisis. As FP contributor Dan Drezner quite simply puts it: "The system worked." For that, Obama deserves some credit.


"Since the day I took office, we’ve renewed our focus on the terrorists who threaten our nation. We’ve made substantial investments in our homeland security and disrupted plots that threatened to take American lives. We are filling unacceptable gaps revealed by the failed Christmas attack, with better airline security and swifter action on our intelligence. We’ve prohibited torture and strengthened partnerships from the Pacific to South Asia to the Arabian Peninsula. And in the last year, hundreds of al Qaeda’s fighters and affiliates, including many senior leaders, have been captured or killed — far more than in 2008."

By all accounts, the failed Christmas Day bombing was a pivotal moment in Obama’s evolution as a wartime president. The attack brought home the immediacy of the threats facing the country and the extreme political price he would pay if another major terrorist attack occured on American soil. To understand why Obama has aggressively pursued al Qaeda, this passage from his 2010 State of the Union remains key.

"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. We will reward good governance, work to reduce corruption, and support the rights of all Afghans — men and women alike."

The degree to which Afghan forces are capable of taking the lead is still very much an open question. In June of 2013, Afghan security forces were handed formal responsibility for security in the country, but capabilities across the country’s armed forces remain highly uneven. Afghan forces now lack American air support and have reportedly struggled in engagements with Taliban forces.

Now, even as we prosecute two wars, we’re also confronting perhaps the greatest danger to the American people — the threat of nuclear weapons. I’ve embraced the vision of John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan through a strategy that reverses the spread of these weapons and seeks a world without them. To reduce our stockpiles and launchers, while ensuring our deterrent, the United States and Russia are completing negotiations on the farthest-reaching arms control treaty in nearly two decades. And at April’s Nuclear Security Summit, we will bring 44 nations together here in Washington, D.C. behind a clear goal: securing all vulnerable nuclear materials around the world in four years, so that they never fall into the hands of terrorists.

Indeed, a few months after delivering those remarks, Obama traveled to Prague to ink an agreement with Russia reducing the two country’s nuclear weapons stockpiles. That agreement did not result in large reductions in weapons but renewed an inspection protocol that had previously served the two countries well. Moreover, the spirit of optimism that pervaded the talks sparked hope that Russia and the United States might be able to patch up their rocky relationship and achieve the diplomatic breakthrough Obama had been seeking. "When the United States and Russia are not able to work together on big issues, it’s not good for either of our nations, nor is it good for the world," Obama said. "Together, we’ve stopped that drift, and proven the benefits of cooperation." As it turned out, it was a spirit that wouldn’t last.

"Now, these diplomatic efforts have also strengthened our hand in dealing with those nations that insist on violating international agreements in pursuit of nuclear weapons. That’s why North Korea now faces increased isolation, and stronger sanctions — sanctions that are being vigorously enforced. That’s why the international community is more united, and the Islamic Republic of Iran is more isolated. And as Iran’s leaders continue to ignore their obligations, there should be no doubt: They, too, will face growing consequences. That is a promise."

Obama’s language on Iran and North Korea is virtually identical in all his State of the Union addresses. Stay strong on sanctions, continue to pressure Tehran and Pyongyang, maintain a cautious, patient distance while seeking a diplomatic opening. With Tehran, Obama has secured an initial victory in the interim nuclear deal. With Pyongyang, not so much. Since Obama took office, North Korea has detonated two nuclear devices.


"Look to Iraq, where nearly 100,000 of our brave men and women have left with their heads held high. American combat patrols have ended, violence is 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."

Obama may have delivered on his promise of ending the Iraq war, but he didn’t do it on his terms. He failed to forge a "lasting partnership" with Iraq with the collapse of negotiations to secure a status of forces agreement allowing small numbers of U.S. forces to remain in the country, and while violence may have been down in 2011, that is no longer the case. The vicious sectarian warfare that marked the darkest days of the U.S. occupation in Iraq have since returned to pre-surge levels. Militants from a local al Qaeda affiliate have since taken control of Fallujah, the site of bitter fighting between militants and U.S. forces. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, meanwhile, has infuriated the White House by serving as one of Iran’s most important Arab allies and for allegedly allowing Tehran to fly weapons to Syria through Iraqi airspace. Has America’s commitment been kept? That topic will be hotly debated if the security situation in Iraq goes from bad to worse in coming months.

"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."

Since promising to build an "enduring partnership" with the Afghan government — another way of saying that U.S. troops will stay beyond the end of the NATO mission in 2014 — talks between the U.S. government and Afghan President Hamid Karzai to establish such an agreement have stalled. While a meeting of Afghan tribal leaders endorsed such an agreement in principle, Karzai has since backpedaled. It is now unclear whether the United States will be able to maintain a troop presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014. This is one of the key questions looming over Obama’s State of the Union on Tuesday. Moreover, it also remains unclear how Obama will deliver on his promise of "better governance" in Afghanistan. Despite U.S. pledges to crack down on corruption, Karzai — the man with whom the United States, for better or worse, must do business with — has overseen a government deemed to be one of the most corrupt in the world. Then again, the United States probably has some responsibility for that track record: The CIA, after all, has been delivering bags of cash to Karzai and his aides, while the military and the State Department have poured tens of billions of dollars in a country that lacked the institutional controls to prevent much of it from being stolen by well-placed government officials.

"Recent events have shown us that what sets us apart must not just be our power — it must also be the purpose behind it.  In South Sudan — with our assistance — the people were finally able to vote for independence after years of war. Thousands lined up before dawn. People danced in the streets. One man who lost four of his brothers at war summed up the scene around him: ‘This was a battlefield for most of my life,’ he said. ‘Now we want to be free.’

"And 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."

As the Arab Spring spread to Egypt, long one of Washington’s most important Arab allies, it was anything but clear whether the United States "supports the democratic aspirations of all people." For months, the Obama administration wavered on whether it supported the ouster of the country’s dictator, Hosni Mubarak. Two years later, that uncertainty returned when the White House couldn’t make up its mind on whether the ouster of Mohammed Morsi did or did not constitute a military coup. Elsewhere in the region, the United States has been distinctly unwilling to back democratic aspirations. In Bahrain, for example, the United States has refused to support the demands of democratic activists for fear of losing access to key naval base there.


"As the tide of war recedes, a wave of change has washed across the Middle East and North Africa, from Tunis to Cairo; from Sana’a to Tripoli.  A year ago, Qaddafi was one of the world’s longest-serving dictators – a murderer with American blood on his hands. Today, he is gone.  And in Syria, I have no doubt that the Assad regime will soon discover that the forces of change cannot be reversed, and that human dignity cannot be denied."

Has the Assad regime discovered that the forces of change "cannot be reversed"? The hardening of the conflict suggests otherwise. Assad’s forces have reclaimed much of the ground they lost to the Syrian opposition, which has suffered a string of battlefield defeats. Additionally, the regime’s use of chemical weapons very much suggests that human dignity can in fact be denied in spite of the protestations of the American president. After threatening militant strikes against Syrian targets in response, the White House instead agreed to a deal for Assad to dispose of his chemical weapons. That agreement says nothing about Assad leaving power. If anything, the deal will only work if Assad stays in power and can control the weapons — and tell international inspectors where they are.

"And we will safeguard America’s own security against those who threaten our citizens, our friends, and our interests. Look at Iran. Through the power of our diplomacy, a world that was once divided about how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program now stands as one. The regime is more isolated than ever before; its leaders are faced with crippling sanctions, and as long as they shirk their responsibilities, this pressure will not relent.

"Let there be no doubt: America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal.

"But a peaceful resolution of this issue is still possible, and far better, and if Iran changes course and meets its obligations, it can rejoin the community of nations."

The possibility of a diplomatic opening with Iran is, as you may have noticed, something of a recurring theme in Obama’s State of the Union. Expect him to give Congress a hard sell on that deal during Tuesday’s speech. A bipartisan coalition of senators, including key lawmakers like Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez of New Jersey, have penned legislation that would immediately slap new sanctions on Tehran if no deal was reached. The White House strenuously opposes the bill, which it says would torpedo the ongoing talks. The legislation currently has 59 supporters, putting it close to a filibuster-proof margin, but some Democrats who had backed the bill have recently signaled that they’re rethinking their positions.


"Beyond 2014, America’s commitment to a unified and sovereign Afghanistan will endure, but the nature of our commitment will change. We’re negotiating an agreement with the Afghan government that focuses on two missions — training and equipping Afghan forces so that the country does not again slip into chaos, and counterterrorism efforts that allow us to pursue the remnants of al Qaeda and their affiliates."

As mentioned, Obama’s ability to deliver on America’s commitment to Afghanistan is very much an open question. But his legacy as the president that ended a decade of war very much depends on establishing a security situation in which widespread violence immediately returns after America’s withdrawal. The bitter recriminations over what was lost in Iraq is but a taste of the political price Obama will pay if Afghanistan descends into chaos. The stand off in Kabul has led to the very real possibility that, as in Iraq, the United States will end its combat mission in Afghanistan without any enduring troop presence there. That scenario has American officials terrified about their ability to continue operations against al Qaeda in Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan.

"Now, even as we protect our people, we should remember that today’s world presents not just dangers, not just threats, it presents opportunities.  To boost American exports, support American jobs and level the playing field in the growing markets of Asia, we intend to complete negotiations on a Trans-Pacific Partnership.  And tonight, I’m announcing that we will launch talks on a comprehensive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union — because trade that is fair and free across the Atlantic supports millions of good-paying American jobs."  

If Obama hoped to export his way out of economic crisis, Edward Snowden threw something of a wrench in those plans. The much touted free trade talks with Europe have largely stalled as a result of Snowden’s revelations. Allegations such as the wiretapping of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone have injected distrust between Europe and the United States, and the trade talks are said to have suffered as a result. Obama’s State of the Union on Tuesday will probably focus heavily on economic issues, and this is one question where Obama can point to distinct harm done to the economic interests of the United States as a result of the Snowden revelations. How he plans to rescue those talks remains an open question.

"We also know that progress in the most impoverished parts of our world enriches us all — not only because it creates new markets, more stable order in certain regions of the world, but also because it’s the right thing to do. In many places, people live on little more than a dollar a day. So the United States will join with our allies to eradicate such extreme poverty in the next two decades by connecting more people to the global economy; by empowering women; by giving our young and brightest minds new opportunities to serve, and helping communities to feed, and power, and educate themselves; by saving the world’s children from preventable deaths; and by realizing the promise of an AIDS-free generation, which is within our reach."

If there was any doubt what a meaningless grab bag of good intentions a State of the Union speech can become, just re-read this paragraph. What problem isn’t Obama proposing to solve here?    

"You see, America must remain a beacon to all who seek freedom during this period of historic change.  I saw the power of hope last year in Rangoon, in Burma, when Aung San Suu Kyi welcomed an American President into the home where she had been imprisoned for years; when thousands of Burmese lined the streets, waving American flags, including a man who said, ‘There is justice and law in the United States.  I want our country to be like that.’"

The opening of Burma is one of those issues that historians may look back at and conclude as a case of hopelessly deluded good intentions. While the government of Burma has entered on a path toward democratic reform, huge obstacles remain. Rampant ethnic violence against the country’s Rohingya minority has raised serious questions about the government’s commitment to rule of law.


When he ran for president in 2008, Obama presented himself to the American people as the man who would end a decade of war. That promise has occupied much of Obama’s foreign policy during his five years in office. To that end, he has resisted committing American troops in large numbers in Syria, used a limited troop commitment to "lead from behind" in Libya, ended the war in Iraq and began winding down the conflict in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, he has tried to prevent a third war from developing by engaging in aggressive diplomacy with Iran to end the stalemate over that country’s nuclear program.

But since he last addressed Congress, the means by which he has prosecuted America’s wars — both those conducted in the shadows and those not — have come under intense scrutiny. Obama hinted in May during a highly touted speech that he would scale back his use of drone strikes to hunt al Qaeda operatives. Those strikes have largely continued, with the latest coming on Sunday in Somalia. Meanwhile, the Snowden revelations have exposed the aggressive intelligence gathering methods that the president has come to rely upon to fight terrorism. Both of those policies have become signal aspects of Obama’s security doctrine. Both were largely promulgated during the Bush administration.

With majorities of the country now disapproving of Obama’s handling of foreign policy and national security, Obama goes before Congress to sell a set of policies that bear an odd resemblance to those of President George W. Bush. That will lend a bitter irony to Tuesday’s prime time speech. Obama campaigned as Bush’s opposite. He’s governed like Bush’s shadow.

Twitter: @EliasGroll

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