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I had expected that there would be little in last week’s State of the Union address about foreign policy as it is not an Administration strength, but, to my surprise, President Barack Obama gave it about eight minutes, a little over 1000 words. Governor Nikki Haley was, however, more detached from the issue in her rebuttal speech, stating only that “… we are facing the most dangerous terrorist threat our nation has seen since September 11th, and this president appears either unwilling or unable to deal with it.”
Obama made a number of points which illustrate his own inclinations regarding how to deal with the rest of the world. He emphasized that America, the “most powerful nation on earth,” must be the global leader, “…when it comes to every important international issue, people of the world do not look to Beijing or Moscow to lead. They call us.”
Regarding the major conflict zones, he observed that “In today’s world, we’re threatened less by evil empires and more by failing states. The Middle East is going through a transformation that will play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia. Russia is pouring resources in to prop up Ukraine and Syria, client states that they saw slipping away from their orbit.”
Obama added that “Both Al Qaida and now ISIL pose a direct threat to our people… Our foreign policy has to be focused on the threat from ISIL and Al Qaida. We have to take them out. For more than a year, America has led a coalition of more than 60 countries…If this Congress is serious about winning this war and wants to send a message to our troops and the world, authorize the use of military force against ISIL.”
Concerning nation building, Obama opined that “We also can’t try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis…even if it’s done with the best of intentions. That’s not leadership; that’s a recipe for quagmire, spilling American blood and treasure that ultimately will weaken us. It’s the lesson of Vietnam. It’s the lesson of Iraq, and we should have learned it by now.”
And how to lead effectively? “On issues of global concern, we will mobilize the world to work with us, and make sure other countries pull their own weight. That’s our approach to conflicts like Syria, where we’re partnering with local forces and leading international efforts to help that broken society pursue a lasting peace.”
A final State of the Union Address is more than most a political document, intended to establish a loose framework of success that will enable the president’s party to prevail in the next presidential election. This is why Obama, instead of addressing substantive issues in a serious way, gave time to the warm and fuzzy perspectives that will define the Democratic Party in national elections later this year. He touched on gay marriage, education reform, job growth, Obamacare, and on guns legislation, all of which are core issues for those who align with the Democrats. The reality of each of those alleged “successes” can, of course, be challenged as failures or even unconstitutional, but the highly structured and almost ritualistic annual presidential speech does not exactly present much of a debating society opportunity for the opposition party.
I have long thought that President Obama is basically a moderate politically speaking who is extremely cautious and disinclined to take any risks. He was, admittedly, elected president in spite of his having had no experience that qualified him for the office. His electoral success was due to a number of factors coming together, most notably a scary GOP candidate coupled with growing antiwar sentiment that was a reaction to the Bush regime’s muscular nationalism. Understanding that, Obama made some gestures that miscategorized him as a “peace” candidate and eventually earned him a Nobel Prize but he quickly surrendered his independence to the consensus driven advisers who were products of the groupthink that drives foreign policy in Washington. In short, he has received some very bad advice and the State of the Union Address inadvertently identifies just what is wrong with the way the Administration views itself within the context of the international community.
It is particularly odd to note the Obama contention that the United States must be the leader, which he cites several times. To a certain extent the claim is little more than self-satisfied preening, but it also goes along with the oft-stated contention that the U.S. President is “leader of the free world,” an expression that Obama frequently uses. Unfortunately, there is no such mandate and it is likely that if an election were held many so-called allies would be reluctant to concede leadership to Washington. The claim that other nations clamor for American leadership is hokum. Germans, in fact, believe that the United States role in world affairs is essentially negative.
And the assertion that Washington is leading a coalition of 60 countries to fight ISIS is clueless, as the coalition is basically inert and toothless, having only acquired some momentum after the Russians intervened on behalf of Syria. Leading coalition partners, to include Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, have all along been playing a double game, supporting ISIS more often than not while many other nominal allies have done little or nothing. And the moderate rebels that White House expects to one day raise the liberty cap over Damascus? They have disappeared.
Indeed, Obama’s view of the conflict zones appears to derive more from a cold war style Manichean mentality than from current realities. Russia is incorrectly seen as having “client states” while the ongoing violence in the Middle East is regarded as a process of going through “transformations” that are “rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.” That is a comment that could have been coined by George W. Bush’s Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice but it is self-serving misreading of reality intended to shift the blame for the anarchy in the region.
Ancient history does not explain the contemporary Middle East. Including the festering Israel and Palestine conflict, which has taken on its current form due to the connivance of Washington as Israel’s patron, all of the unrest in the region is quite plausibly a direct or indirect result of American missteps, starting with the invasion of Iraq in 2003 coupled with the attempts to destabilize and change regime in Syria that started in the same year, followed by the overthrow of the Libyan government in 2011.
And Obama in his speech appears to want to up the ante, asking congress for war powers to get more deeply into the Syrian civil war. It contradicts his call for learning from past mistakes in Vietnam and Iraq and makes clear that the White House has not benefitted from hindsight as it intends to again repeat using military intervention as a foreign policy tool. It is also telling that Obama did not mention learning anything from the disastrous intervention in Libya, which, of course, occurred on his watch and that of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The fact is that the Arab world was relatively stable even if it was not very free before the U.S. sought fit to intervene in serial fashion after 9/11 and it would be nice if the president would just give that a nod, particularly as he went on to say that the United States should not seek to “take over and rebuild” every country that falls into “crisis.” As Obama has not hesitated to continue to do exactly that in Afghanistan with intentions to do likewise in Syria one has to question his perception of where the problem lies.
And finally, there is the question of what to do about terrorism. Describing ISIS and al Qaeda as major threats and the “focus” of U.S. foreign policy gives the groups way too much credit and also enhances their appeal to young Muslim men who will no doubt be volunteering in droves as a response to the Obama message. The reality is that they are not a major threat and never have been and if U.S. foreign policy is focused on them it is a bad misreading of what is important and what is not. Maintaining good working relations with adversaries Russia and China is far more important, as is increasing multilateral cooperation with friendly Asian rim nations and allies in Europe. Diplomacy is not just engaged in repressing bad guys, it is more so about building positive relations with friends and potential allies as well as bridges to opponents.
Foreign policy does not win or lose national elections but the diminished status of diplomacy over the past twenty years coupled with a basic incomprehension of what to do about the development of a multipolar world should be troubling for many Americans because the United States no longer operates in a vacuum. The perpetuation of myths that the U.S. must lead and should take steps to correct the policies of other nations, to include engineering regime change, must be once and for all explicitly discarded. Obama could have called for something like that but he didn’t.
The United States of America does just fine when it minds its own business and seeks friendship with everyone, as President George Washington recommended in his Farewell Address. Even the so-called terrorist problem would be much diminished because, as Ron Paul has correctly observed, “they are over here because we are over there.” Unfortunately, an undoubtedly intelligent and seemingly well-intentioned man like Barack Obama has chosen to go with the Washington consensus rather than heed his own instincts, which is something of a tragedy as whoever succeeds him in office later this year is not likely to possess either of those virtues and will no doubt double down on “America the exceptional.”