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Shadow Government

Will the National Security Strategy Answer the Questions the State of Union Left Hanging?

From the foreign policy point of view, State of the Union addresses are painful affairs. They rarely focus on foreign policy or national security and, when they do, they tend not to engage the topic with the seriousness and rigor that it demands. Part of it is just the medium: a laundry list of selective ...

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From the foreign policy point of view, State of the Union addresses are painful affairs. They rarely focus on foreign policy or national security and, when they do, they tend not to engage the topic with the seriousness and rigor that it demands.

Part of it is just the medium: a laundry list of selective and hyperbolic boasts about the past stapled to a laundry list of impractical and hyper-partisan policy proposals. And part of it is that domestic issues always get the lion’s share of the airtime. But I think above all it is that even when the State of the Union does finally land on foreign policy, it tends to do so in a superficial, almost cringe-worthy way.

Take the 2015 address. The blithe promises that President Obama offered to assure us that he was fully in command of the global challenges we faced from Eastern Europe, to the Middle East, to Asia would be more convincing if even one of the defining challenges of the past year had been adequately anticipated (I won’t demand an unreasonable standard of “adequately covered”) in the 2014 State of the Union.

President Obama assured us that he is leading a coalition of the willing to stop the terrorist group the Islamic State. That claim would be more reassuring if he hadn’t dismissed it as a “junior varsity” threat almost exactly a year ago in an interview he gave in the run-up to last year’s address (which didn’t even mention the Islamic State). Likewise, his boast in 2015’s State of the Union about standing up to Russian President Vladimir Putin would sound less hollow if 2014’s had discussed the challenge posed by Putin (a challenge, by the way, that Obama mocked when Governor Romney discussed it during the 2012 campaign).

Indeed, the defining feature of the second term has been the extent to which world events have rebutted the campaign spin that helped get him the second term.

Yet the speech did not acknowledge any of that. In fact, it reads a lot like a 2008 campaign speech (updated with new events “proving” the wisdom of the old strategies, built on premises that explicitly denied the new events would happen).

Observing President Obama’s 3rd State of the Union of his second term is like watching a matryoshka doll get unveiled. Obama started his second term with the self-confidence of a man who had convinced millions of Americans he had earned the right to govern for another four years, in no small measure because he had successfully brought Osama bin Laden to justice and “ended the wars” as he promised. Then, a year later, he unveiled himself again, a slightly smaller version of the same figure — shrunken by the effect of events chipping away at the claims. And Tuesday night, after a year of even more dramatic chipping away, another, still smaller version of the same figure presented itself.

It is striking how little of the reality of 2014 was anticipated in the State of the Union Address of 2014. At every turn this year, world events have rebutted the slender foreign policy section of the president’s annual address.

To be sure, he did make a bit of foreign policy news. Obama said he would finally ask Congress for a use of force authorization against the Islamic State and he promised (again) to veto popular legislation to impose conditional sanctions on Iran. (Here, again, Obama’s case against new sanctions would be more compelling if he more candidly acknowledged how Congress had imposed earlier rounds of sanctions over his objections, and how those earlier rounds now formed part of the pressure he claims helped push Iran to the negotiating table.)

But beyond that, there was not much for the foreign policy community to engage with. In fact, there may be more commentary on the interactive, tweet-friendly way the White House communications office put out the speech for bloggers than there will be on the foreign policy sections.

From a foreign policy point of view, what is needed is a larger, not a smaller matryoshka doll.

As it happens, just such an offering may soon be available: the National Security Strategy (NSS). The Obama administration expected to release a second term version in 2013, and then again in 2014. Each time, world events outpaced the ability of the administration to provide a coherent explanation and chart a well-designed strategy to address the events (at least not within the confines of the world view presented in President Obama’s 2012 campaign). It now seems likely the administration will finally release the NSS sometime after the State of the Union.

I hope that the NSS will do what the State of the Union was unable to do: demonstrate that President Obama understands the challenges confronting the United States, has figured out a coherent strategy for confronting them, and is resolved to implement the plan.

My advice to foreign policy wonks: ignore the State of the Union and keep your pencils sharpened for when the NSS finally is unveiled.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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