By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) —
President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address slighted foreign policy in favor of touting domestic progress and proposing new domestic initiatives. But there were some foreign policy highlights worth underlining.
1. Obama pushed back hard against hawks like Senator John McCain, who want to ramp up a conventional US military presence in a number of countries, including Syria. Obama said,
“Will we approach the world fearful and reactive, dragged into costly conflicts that strain our military and set back our standing? Or will we lead wisely, using all elements of our power to defeat new threats and protect our planet?
Will we allow ourselves to be sorted into factions and turned against one another, or will we recapture the sense of common purpose that has always propelled America forward?”
“When we make rash decisions, reacting to the headlines instead of using our heads; when the first response to a challenge is to send in our military, then we risk getting drawn into unnecessary conflicts, and neglect the broader strategy we need for a safer, more prosperous world. That’s what our enemies want us to do.
I believe in a smarter kind of American leadership. We lead best when we combine military power with strong diplomacy; when we leverage our power with coalition building; when we don’t let our fears blind us to the opportunities that this new century presents.”
So his keynotes are a preference for diplomacy over military commitments, and where diplomacy is not enough, a preference for coalitions over unilateral American action. We’ve seen these principles in action in the Ukraine, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.
Obama does not use the diction of the War on Terror, but he continued to highlight counter-terrorism as a keystone of US policy abroad. He said,
“First, we stand united with people around the world who’ve been targeted by terrorists, from a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris.
We will continue…
… to hunt down terrorists and dismantle their networks, and we reserve the right to act unilaterally, as we have done relentlessly since I took office, to take out terrorists who pose a direct threat to us and our allies.”
“Hunting down” and unilateral drone strikes– what is implied here– are not actually very sophisticated counter-terrorism tactics.
Obama went on to argue for coalition building as a means to counter terrorism. He said,
“At the same time, we’ve learned some costly lessons over the last 13 years.
Instead of Americans patrolling the valleys of Afghanistan, we’ve trained their security forces, who’ve now taken the lead, and we’ve honored our troops’ sacrifice by supporting that country’s first democratic transition.
Instead of sending large ground forces overseas, we’re partnering with nations from South Asia to North Africa to deny safe haven to terrorists who threaten America.”
I think it is too soon to tell if the Afghanistan National Army will fight and stand against the Taliban without US military back-up. After all, the new Iraqi army the US equipped and trained just collapsed in June.
Then Obama turned to his current wars, in Iraq and Syria:
“In Iraq and Syria, American leadership, including our military power, is stopping ISIL’s advance. Instead of getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East, we are leading a broad coalition, including Arab nations, to degrade and ultimately destroy this terrorist group.
We’re also supporting a moderate opposition in Syria that can help us in this effort and assisting people everywhere who stand up to the bankrupt ideology of violent extremism.”
It is true that US and other bombing campaigns did halt the advances of Daesh (ISIL or ISIS). But it is also true that Daesh has actually continued to gain territory in the al-Anbar province and in Eastern Syria.
And, from all accounts, Obama failed to recruit Turkey to a significant role the effort against al-Qaeda offshoots
Daesh (ISIS or ISIL) has been somewhat contained but not rolled back or destroyed Aside from dropping some bombs, It is hard to see what the “neighbors” have done.
“Now, this effort will take time. It will require focus. But we will succeed. And tonight, I call on this Congress to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL.
We need that authority.”
Obama had tried to have Congress own the Syrian intervention in fall of 2013 (it was not clear he would get a majority in that vote if it had been held. Here he is, trying again. Politically, this step works for him, since his Republican critics likely have to go along, and so become coopted to his policies.
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