THE STATE OF THE UNION AND THE STATE OF THE WORLD: PRESIDENT POSTURES FOREIGN POLICY AFFAIRS PERSPECTIVE AND THE WAY FORWARD
by Harry C. Blaney III
Most of President Obama’s State of the Union speech was focused on domestic issues, especially the need for America to move forward in dealing with glaring inequality and the need for good paying jobs, but not least improving education and investment in science and technology in our decaying infrastructure. These are, in fact, intertwined with America’s leadership capabilities in an increasingly high risk and complex world. He called last night for a more robust diplomacy and an end to “endless wars” that sap the strength of America and its larger purpose in our world. The speech was both idealistic and realistic, a trait that characterizes much of President Obama’s stance on dealing with many challenges he has had to face.
Given the bitter opposition by the right wing Republicans throughout his tenure, he focused in large part on what could be accomplished at home and abroad on his own. Not to the exclusion of finding some common ground on some issues, but clearly he has been chastened by single-minded and merciless obstruction.
While the president has real limits on what he can do at home, he has more freedom to act abroad. That was shown in the last part of his speech when he clearly set forth his large and ambitious but difficult agenda for the coming year and, perhaps, years. He and his Secretary of State John Kerry have decided, against great odds, to go for the “hail Mary” in football terms. The list is ambitious as it is long. Likely not all of it will end in success, as is often the case in messy and contentious foreign affairs challenges. Perhaps some will, but in any case, it is worth the effort since in many cases, the alternatives are very large disasters for us and others. What is the purpose of his presidency if it is not to address our larger global threats and challenges? He said it well in, “America does not stand still, and neither will I.”
Let’s look at that list and how Obama addressed the international issues to the American people, as that was his main audience since some half of the Congressional audience was in a dead brain coma. Just look at Speaker John Boehner during the speech, and you will know that syndrome.
The president made one of the most difficult tasks ahead in American diplomacy a key priority, namely finding a lasting peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Secretary Kerry is moving as swiftly as possible towards a plan that would smoke out both sides in this long-running dispute that threatens the stability of the entire Middle East. The time has indeed come, perhaps at a difficult juncture because Prime Minister Netanyahu has done just about everything he could to destroy any chance of peace and a fair agreement. On the other side, the Palestinian leadership has been weak, but some of that weakness has been created by the illegal Israeli settlements in Arab land and new settlements that can only be aimed at trying to get the other side to pull out of negotiations. Yet, what is on offer is a so-called “Kerry Plan,” which of necessity must not fully please anyone but give enough that all can and should live with it. The president gave his full backing to this effort and the two state solution in his State of the Union and in quite promises to support Israel’s long-term security under any fair accord. He said: “As we speak, American diplomacy is supporting Israelis and Palestinians as they engage in difficult but necessary talks to end the conflict there; to achieve dignity and an independent state for Palestinians, and lasting peace and security for the State of Israel—a Jewish state that knows America will always be at their side.”
On the other difficult negotiation, namely sanctions dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions, as Obama stated, America has made real progress, and he made clear that new legislation that has been proposed by a group of anti-Obama Republicans and some Neo-Con war hawks will get his veto if passed before the conclusion of the present talks dealing with the long-term issues.
He made his argument thus:
“And it is American diplomacy, backed by pressure, that has halted the progress of Iran’s nuclear program – and rolled parts of that program back – for the very first time in a decade. As we gather here tonight, Iran has begun to eliminate its stockpile of higher levels of enriched uranium. It is not installing advanced centrifuges. Unprecedented inspections help the world verify, every day, that Iran is not building a bomb. And with our allies and partners, we’re engaged in negotiations to see if we can peacefully achieve a goal we all share: preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
“But these negotiations do not rely on trust; any long-term deal we agree to must be based on verifiable action that convinces us and the international community that Iran is not building a nuclear bomb. If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today.
“The sanctions that we put in place helped make this opportunity possible. But let me be clear: if this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it. For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed. 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. But if Iran’s leaders do seize the chance, then Iran could take an important step to rejoin the community of nations, and we will have resolved one of the leading security challenges of our time without the risks of war.
“Finally, let’s remember that our leadership is defined not just by our defense against threats, but by the enormous opportunities to do good and promote understanding around the globe – to forge greater cooperation, to expand new markets, to free people from fear and want. And no one is better positioned to take advantage of those opportunities than America.”
One key part of his SOU speech was his clear and decisive direction on ending the long-term wars America has been engaged in over the last decade. Again, in his own words:
“Tonight, because of the extraordinary troops and civilians who risk and lay down their lives to keep us free, the United States is more secure. When I took office, nearly 180,000 Americans were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, all our troops are out of Iraq. More than 60,000 of our troops have already come home from Afghanistan. With Afghan forces now in the lead for their own security, our troops have moved to a support role. Together with our allies, we will complete our mission there by the end of this year, and America’s longest war will finally be over.”
It is the almost impossible challenge of trying to get the warring factions of Syria and their external backers to bring a measure of security and peace to this major civil war that threatens a major regional inter-communal conflict.
The problem of Syria was touched on, and this may be his weakest component in the international section. Apart from support for the existing diplomacy, he only briefly mentioned support of the moderate opposition forces, but did not set out any larger vision or new ideas of how to put an end of this horrific killing fields. He said, “In Syria, we’ll support the opposition that rejects the agenda of terrorist networks… American diplomacy, backed by the threat of force, is why Syria’s chemical weapons are being eliminated, and we will continue to work with the international community to usher in the future the Syrian people deserve – a future free of dictatorship, terror and fear.” Perhaps the statement was short because hard new decisions remain under debate in the administration and awaits the final outcome of Geneva II. It could also be the almost impossible challenge of trying to get the warring factions of Syria and their external backers to bring a measure of security and peace to this major civil war that threatens a serious regional inter-communal conflict.
What was also left out was addressing our challenges in Asia, especially the China-Japan clash, the rise of China, dealing with Putin’s Russia, North Korean nuclear efforts, and a fully defined vision on how to deal with climate change, global health needs, poverty and inequality, and strengthening international institutions. However, the speech, for good reasons, mainly addressed domestic policies. One can hope before too long Obama will set forth his fuller vision for all the other international issues that need America’s attention.
Obama clearly sees as his lasting legacy the ending of not only the headless Iraq war, but also finally, the active fighting by Americans and the allied forces in Afghanistan. He has seen the price of these wars to Americans and the blood and resources they cost. On his watch, America will see the end of large scale warfare in a distant land which sadly had little understanding of consequences and mission.
But the larger message of this speech was Obama’s diplomatic and international ambition of a new vision for America and the world that does not heed the erroneous militaristic and stupid turn our nation took with the start of the Bush II administration. He outlined his hope for an America that will again be a constructive and thoughtful world leader using all the tools of “soft power,” while holding the use of military force only when absolutely necessary and when objectives and risks are clear.
I thought there was one statement which set forth succinctly and clearly President Obama’s perspective. “Finally, let’s remember that our leadership is defined not only just by our defense against threats, but by the enormous opportunities to do good and promote understanding around the globe—to forge greater cooperation, to expand new markets, to free people from fear and want. And no one is better positioned to take advantage of those opportunities than America.”
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