Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

Obama’s State of the Union Dry on the Foreign-Policy Front

Posted in United States by Dan on January 28, 2010

It is approximately 11:00 P.M. here in New York, and I just finished watching President Obama’s first-ever State of the Union Address.  And boy what an address it was: empty words and drivel.  In fact, as I am sitting in front of my computer screen and writing these words to you right know, I honestly feel like I wasted 70 minutes of my life.

The speech was anything but special.  If I had to describe the address in a short phrase, I would say that it is was a typical Obama oratory; hopeful rhetoric but lacking detail and substance.  He spoke of the urgency to create jobs and fix the horrible economic situation here in the United States.  He urged Congress to work together and cast aside their ideological and petty differences…something that all Presidents have demanded since the beginning of time.  Obama discussed the need to balance the fiscal deficit by eliminating national programs that are both cumbersome and bureaucratically unmanageable.  Heck, the President even proposed a government spending freeze for three years in order to chip away a few billion dollars from the national debt.

And of course, a Presidential State of the Union speech would not be considered adequate without touching on education.  Even this issue- considered one of the support beams of the Democratic Party- was anything but transparent and direct.  Besides asking the U.S. Congress to cut the No Child Left Behind Act, all President Obama essentially did was extend where previous administrations left off.  Anyone can argue for a federal boost in educational opportunities for poor children, and any right-minded politician would endorse the slashing of college costs.

Little did the President know that he contradicted himself in a rather blatant way, both in front of Congress and in front of millions of Americans.  He plans on strengthening the nation’s education system, but he also plans on capping the money that the U.S. Government can spend.  Where exactly is this money going to come from?  Out of his own pocket?

But to be honest, I could care less about Obama’s domestic priorities.  I was practically half-asleep when he was talking about surpluses and deficits (not exactly exciting topics).  I tuned in primarily for his foreign-policy initiatives.

As the speech began, I was curious as to what our Commander-in-Chief would say about America’s international challenges.  After all, we are in two wars…not to mention U.S. covert activity in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.  What does he intend to do about the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, and what course of action does the White House want to take with respect to Iran and its nuclear program?

Well, after the usual praise of American troops (obviously much deserved) and his talk about taking the fight to Al’Qaeda, I cannot sit here tonight and give you any answers.  From a foreign-policy perspective, the SOTU sounded more like a campaign rally than a legitimate policy platform.

Here are a few things that come to mind:

On Afghanistan:  Despite Taliban advances and the weakened state of the Afghan Security Forces, the Prez used this time to basically reiterate his previous stance.  We are going to…1) reduce corruption in the Afghan Government, 2) provide basic services for the Afghan population, and 3) make sure the United States succeeds in its mission.  This is all well and good, but how exactly does the President intend to succeed in Afghanistan if U.S. troops start withdrawing by the Summer of 2011?  Any general or military scholar will tell you that it takes at least five years to fight a successful counterinsurgency.  The enemy must not only be defeated on the battlefield; strong institutions must be built and sustained if you want security gains to last well into the future.  Economic development and entrepreneurialism needs to be promoted and enhanced  if people are expected to throw down their guns.  And lastly, corruption and judicial malpractice must be reformed before the locals (in this case, Afghans) even consider switching their allegiance to Hamid Karzai.  I highly doubt that all of this can be attained in a year and a half.

On Iraq:  While the President was correct to stick with his August 2010 troop pullout, he failed to even mention the current environment in Iraq.  Over the past week, suicide-bombers have successfully detonated truck bombs and high-voltage explosives, rocking some of Bagdad’s most important areas.  Prime Minister Maliki and his Shia coalition recently banned 500 candidates from the next parliamentary election, only deepening ethnic divisions between Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds.  And of course, Sunnis are still largely marginalized in Iraqi culture; jobs are scarce and the Sunnis who do have jobs are highly dependent on the Shia government.  With Iraqi politics starting to inflame once again, you would think that the President would at least acknowledge that the mission is not yet complete.  “All of our troops are coming home” may come to bite him in the butt if violence spreads in the coming months.

On Iran:  Citing Iran’s refusal to negotiate on its nuclear program, the President laid it all on the line; Iran will “face growing consequences” if the country’s leadership continues on its present course.  But what will these consequences be?  A military strike, economic sanctions, or regime-change?

Finally, before I end this rant, I have to bring up one other point.  In Afghanistan, the United States is fighting a diverse and sophisticated Taliban enemy.  Luckily, the United States and its coalition allies are not alone in this fight; they also have logistical support from the Pakistani Government.  Intelligence sharing between the U.S. and Pakistan occurs on a daily basis, with American generals providing the Pakistanis with detailed intelligence and the Pakistanis returning the favor with a broad-based anti-militant operation within its own borders.  Yet throughout the entire speech, Pakistan was not uttered once.  This may not be an immediate problem, considering Pakistan’s reliance on generous donations from Washington.  But at a time when anti-Americanism in Pakistan is already extremely high, snubbing Pakistan from the most publicized address a U.S. President can offer is not a beneficial move.  If there is anything that can be said about the confusing nature of Pakistan, it is the fact that hostile words- or no words at all- are just as hurtful to the Islamic nation as hostile actions.

Not everyone in the world will agree with these observations, and I encourage everyone to make their own views known.  Some people may be ecstatic that the President devoted much of his time to the economy, jobs, and health-care.  Others- like myself- are more disgruntled.  But nevertheless, we can be sure that political pundits and media talking-heads will have some fun over the next few days.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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