Keeping His Powder Dry

From Syria to Iran, Obama's State of the Union leaves many questions unanswered.

Getty Images News
Getty Images News

Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is regaining lost territory and solidifying his control of a country that once seemed to be slipping from his grasp. Iraq is spiraling back into civil war, with an al Qaeda affiliate there flexing its muscles on turf American soldiers and Marines once held. Egypt’s military government is arresting thousands of political opponents, raising serious questions about its commitment to democracy. NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden continues to release new details about America’s spying efforts, rattling trust in the U.S. government at home and abroad.

President Barack Obama did not touch on any of that in his State of the Union address, however. Instead, he focused heavily on domestic policy, pledging to take a variety of actions to strengthen the middle class, grow jobs, and make life easier for American families. Obama’s annual addresses have always been heavily tilted toward his proposals for changing the situation here at home. Still, his State of the Union address this year was notable for how little time he devoted to foreign policy — and how little he said that amounted to anything new.

Take Afghanistan, the signature "good war" Obama pledged to fight and win during his initial campaign for the White House. Five years into his presidency and nearly 13 years into the war, the president offered few details about what the United States would do to prevent Afghanistan from falling into chaos if Afghan President Hamid Karzai refused to sign a security agreement allowing small numbers of U.S. troops to remain in the country. Obama has repeatedly promised to withdraw all American forces from Afghanistan unless a deal was signed. That would be a popular move at home, where support for the Afghan war has fallen to historic lows, but it would be enormously risky for the United States: Obama pulled all American troops out of Iraq in early 2011 after a similar security deal fell apart there, only to watch Iraq slide back into chaos.

"If the Afghan government signs a security agreement that we have negotiated, a small force of Americans could remain in Afghanistan with NATO allies to carry out two narrow missions: training and assisting Afghan forces, and counterterrorism operations to pursue any remnants of al Qaeda," Obama said, without acknowledging other possible outcomes.

On Syria, the president said the United States would "support the opposition that rejects the agenda of terrorist networks," but he declined to say whether his administration was willing to provide weapons and arms to the moderate elements of the loose-knit rebel alliance battling Assad. Obama’s mention of "terrorist networks" within the Syrian opposition, meanwhile, will likely be seen throughout the Middle East as a sign that Washington was now effectively agreeing, in part, with Assad’s contention that he is battling vicious Islamists, not pro-democracy rebels.

Similarly, Obama said that "American diplomacy, backed by the threat of force" had persuaded Assad to give up his chemical weapons after using them against his own people late last year, but he declined to say what Washington would do if Assad failed to follow through on a promise to turn over his chemical weapons for destruction aboard a U.S. vessel at sea.

Obama had few words about Iraq, where violence has soared to pre-surge levels and al Qaeda-linked affiliates have conquered significant swaths of the country, including the infamous city of Fallujah. Congress just cleared the sale of Apache attack helicopters the Iraqi government has pleaded for, but Obama didn’t reference Iraq’s descent into chaos or talk about steps the U.S. might be willing to take to help stabilize the country. Instead, he lumped Iraq in with other countries with known terrorist networks inside their borders — specifically, Somalia, Mali, and Yemen — and pledged to merely "keep working with partners" to battle them.

Snowden, the whistleblower who has disclosed reams of details about U.S. spying programs at home and abroad, wasn’t mentioned in Obama’s prime time address. The president pledged on Tuesday to work with Congress to "reform our surveillance programs," but said he would do so not out of concern that the NSA has violated privacy rights but because "the vital work of our intelligence community depends on public confidence, here and abroad, that the privacy of ordinary people is not being violated." The problem, he implied, wasn’t that Americans may have had their phone calls and email traffic improperly monitored by the NSA; it was that Washington needed to do a better job of convincing people both in the United States and abroad that the NSA does not represent Big Brother.

On Iran, the president said the United States remains "clear-eyed about Iran’s support for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah." But he said the United States must give ongoing talks aimed at ending Iran’s nuclear program a chance, and promised to veto current legislation, backed by bipartisan groups of lawmakers in both the House and the Senate, that would immediately slap new sanctions on Iran if the current talks end without a permanent nuclear deal.

"For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed," Obama said. "If Iran’s leaders do not seize this opportunity, then I will be the first to call for more sanctions, and stand ready to exercise all options to make sure Iran does not build a nuclear weapon."

Obama said that if Iran strikes a deal in nuclear talks, then "we will have resolved one of the leading security challenges of our time without the risks of war." Beyond broadly threatening sanctions, however, he did not say whether he was prepared to use force to prevent Tehran from obtaining a bomb.

Finally, on the United States’ controversial use of drones, Obama pressed that he has "imposed prudent limits" on their use. But he did not mention that an effort to take control of the robotic aircraft away from the CIA and give it to the Pentagon in the name of transparency has been stalled since November and the move’s prospects are, at best, uncertain.

Obama often describes himself as a wartime president, and his speech Tuesday night was designed to show that he remained willing to use force against America’s enemies if there were no other alternatives. The only problem is that he didn’t want to say what those alternatives were.

Elias Groll contributed to this report.
 Twitter: @DanLamothe

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