President Barack Obama said little in his State of the Union address last night to answer some of the most pressing foreign-policy questions he faces.
These include how many -- if any -- U.S. forces will remain in Afghanistan after this year, how he will deal with an increasingly assertive China, and what the U.S. can do to fight the al-Qaeda offshoots that have taken root in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and across North Africa.
While he devoted about a fifth of his time to foreign policy, the president didn’t mention it until three-quarters of the way into his address. Nor did White House officials discuss it in any of their pre-speech briefings or fact sheets for reporters.
“It’s a marker that foreign policy is not what he is interested in,” said Willis Sparks, director of global macro analysis at the Eurasia Group, a New York-based political risk research and consulting firm. “It was not foreign policy that drove him to run for president in the first place, and it’s not foreign policy where, I think, he wants to leave his legacy.”
Most of Obama’s remarks seemed generic and showed little of the energy and detail he brought to his domestic ambitions, Sparks said in an interview.
Obama’s speech was watched by an audience of 33.3 million U.S. viewers, down from 33.5 million last year and the lowest figure since he took office, according to data compiled by Nielsen, which monitored 14 cable and broadcast networks. Obama’s first State of the Union address in 2009 attracted an audience of 52.4 million, according to the ratings service.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said today that people shouldn’t draw conclusions based on the length of the president’s comments.
“There was one sentence on Ukraine, but that doesn’t change how committed we are to that issue and how much time we focus on that issue, as reflected by the fact that the vice president has spoken with the president of Ukraine three times in, I think, the last week,” she told reporters at a briefing. “So I would caution anyone against evaluating word count as being equated with importance.”
The president did respond indirectly to domestic critics such as Arizona Republican Senator John McCain, who has said Obama doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism, and to allies worried about American steadfastness by saying the U.S. will continue to play a unique role.
“No other country in the world does what we do,” the president said. “On every issue, the world turns to us, not simply because of the size of our economy or our military might -– but because of the ideals we stand for, and the burdens we bear to advance them.”
For an American public that polls show is wary of foreign commitments after more than a decade at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama stressed his reliance on diplomacy, rather than the use of military force.
“You see, in a world of complex threats, our security and leadership depends on all elements of our power –- including strong and principled diplomacy,” he said.
His words may be judged against what the U.S. has been unable to accomplish through diplomacy. In highlighting support for democratic activists “from Tunisia to Burma,” he ignored the violence that has followed U.S.-backed political change in Egypt, Iraq and Libya, where Islamic militants killed U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in September 2012.
American diplomacy so far has failed to end the Syrian civil war. That conflict has claimed more than 130,000 lives over the last three years as Obama has resisted calls from regional allies to arm more moderate rebel groups.
Obama’s own Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, took a more downbeat view of the situation in his annual Worldwide Threat Assessment today, warning that “Syria has become a significant location for independent or al-Qaeda-aligned groups to recruit, train, and equip a growing number of extremists, some of whom might conduct external attacks.”
Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, one of the president’s frequent Republican critics, called the foreign policy portion of Obama’s speech “a complete disaster.”
“The world, as I know it, was not remotely described by the president” he told reporters. “Syria is a contagion. It is a cancer in the Mideast” while Iraq “is falling apart” and al-Qaeda “is on the march everywhere.”
On Iran, Obama renewed his appeal for lawmakers to hold off on new sanctions while nuclear negotiations continue for six months. Iranian officials have warned that further sanctions by Congress now would show bad faith and scuttle the talks.
Obama praised the interim Iran deal that rolls back elements of its nuclear program in exchange for some easing of sanctions, while he warned that talks on a final accord to deny Iran nuclear weapons capabilities “will be difficult. They may not succeed.”
In his report to the Senate intelligence committee today, Clapper said Iran “wants to improve its nuclear and missile capabilities while avoiding severe repercussions -- such as a military strike or regime-threatening sanctions. We do not know if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.”
While Obama concentrated on domestic issues, the nation’s well-being -- economic, security and even health and environmental -- is more closely tied to the rest of the world than ever before.
State of the Union speeches often “are largely about the domestic state of our economy, but the domestic state of the economy, and whether or not we’re growing, greatly depends on what’s happening around the world,” said Vali Nasr, dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
“We live in an interconnected world,” Nasr, a former State Department adviser who is also a Bloomberg View contributor, said in an interview. The turbulence in Ukraine, anxiety about possible terrorist threats at the Olympics and other developments “portend a set of trouble spots around the world, any one of which could have consequences for the global economy and that will have consequences for the United States.”
Along with the influence of global financial markets, the importance of trade to the U.S. economy has grown in the past decade. Merchandise trade as a share of U.S. gross domestic product rose to 24.8 percent in 2012 from 17.9 percent in 2002, according to World Bank data.
Obama didn’t mention that the administration missed its own end-of-year deadline to complete the Trans-Pacific Partnership accord with 11 Pacific Rim nations, a region with about $28 trillion in annual economic output.
In Asia, regional allies question whether political gridlock in Washington, limits on defense spending and Mideast crises have made Obama’s “so-called pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region “more rhetoric than substance,” Brookings Institution policy analysts Robert Kagan and Ted Piccone wrote in a report this week for the Washington-based research group.
China’s “provocative new policy” of seeking to control extended airspace could pose “an escalating threat to American credibility,” they said in their report.
Obama made no mention of increased attention to the Pacific in his address, saying only that the U.S. will support allies and “shape a future of greater security and prosperity” in the region.
“For all of the talk about a rebalance to Asia in the first term, this speech shined the spotlight back to the Middle East,” said Brian Katulis, senior fellow for national security at the Center for American Progress in Washington.
Among Mideast topics, Obama made only a passing reference to the “difficult but necessary” Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, the high-profile venture by his secretary of state, John Kerry.
Obama said in his State of the Union address last year that “our war in Afghanistan will be over” by the end of 2014. When he spoke yesterday, he was unable to say how it will end -- whether with a residual U.S. security role or a complete pullout, as happened two years ago in Iraq, where Clapper said today there is a resurgence by al-Qaeda-linked groups.
The planning for a military exit from Afghanistan has been hung up by Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s refusal to sign a 10-year security agreement. That’s complicated Obama’s decision on whether to authorize a Pentagon plan that would maintain as many as 10,000 U.S. troops for training Afghan forces and sustaining counterterrorism efforts.
“If the Afghan government signs a security agreement that we have negotiated, a small force of Americans could remain in Afghanistan with NATO allies,” Obama said without specifying the likelihood or size of that force.
While the administration has repeatedly said drone strikes and other attacks have “decimated” the core leadership of al-Qaeda in Pakistan, Clapper today said the remainder of the group “probably hopes for a resurgence following the drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2014.”
Pentagon officials, arguing against leaving too small a force, have proposed keeping at least 10,000 U.S. troops for a few years, or none at all. The U.S. currently has 37,500 troops in Afghanistan.