On January 28th President Obama delivered the constitutionally mandated annual State of the Union address. An air of familiarity was present as the typical idealistic ambition for which Obama has become known permeated the hour-long address to the nation. As a speech with the potential to change the face of American foreign policy, as George W. Bush did with his 2002 State of the Union address, Obama’s 2014 State of the Union stands in stark contrast. The president made clear there would be a new American foreign policy strategy, but one that would be scarce and mild. His focus during this “year of action” would be firmly rooted in nation-building initiatives with very limited foreign policy engagement.
This inward focused agenda, tackling immigration reform, raising the minimum wage, and bridging the widening inequality gap between the upper and middle classes marks a pivot away from the foreign policy strains that have plagued the US for over a decade. At a time when the nation remains highly partisan and Obama’s approval rating has reached new lows with the disastrous inception of Obamacare and its many hiccups, a domestic emphasis seems practical. With government shutdowns, gun control disputes, and Snowden’s leak of NSA overreach, the US appears to be in a state of chaos. As America has fallen from grace in the eyes of the world, a step back to strengthen its inner core may be the beginning to repairing its global image.
While the platform of diplomacy is alluring, especially in the wake of years of military-heavy intervention which has sullied the United States’ reputation and credibility, Obama’s policies have the potential to lead the country down a very dangerous path. Terrorist groups remain at large and motivated; quick in-and-out interventions (which arguably contradict his declaration to cut down on drone use), while attractive, may not be sufficient to protect US interests. He claimed, “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”. While sounding nice, this comparison portrays the world as a much less unstable, scary place than it once was – though at the time extraordinarily tense, the Cold War was a rather comforting period for international relations in the sense that dynamics more or less followed a predictable realist, rational strain. The United States’ adversaries these days: namely Iran, Syria, and North Korea are not guaranteed to follow such rules, and as such can not be dealt with identically to the Soviet Union; their threat should not be underestimated.
Obama appeared firm in his discussion of Iran, the primary focus of his foreign policy agenda. He vowed to bypass Congress if it were to attempt to impose sanctions on the country, and exercise his executive authority to the fullest. “For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed,” Obama proclaimed. While this may be true, and undoubtedly huge strides have been made in solidifying a deal between Iran and world powers, one must also be fearful of drawing out negotiations, giving Iran time to develop its nuclear weapons programme while the international community remains stalled.
President Obama was also stern in repeating his intention of fully withdrawing from Afghanistan this year, finally closing the chapter on the long-standing war there. As for the rest of his acknowledgement of foreign policy initiatives, the president was brief but mentioned continued pressure on Syria along with support for states pursuing democracy such as Myanmar and the Ukraine. Surprisingly, the former US ally Egypt and its recent turmoil was left unaddressed. Once again, President Obama has promised to close the highly controversial Guantanamo Bay prison: something he had promised to achieve within one year of his initial election and serves as a glaring reminder of Obama’s straying from the path he campaigned for in 2008 and perhaps his inability to truly get things done.
As his mention of Guantanamo and the rest of his state of the union suggest, this and the coming few years will be used to tie up the loose ends of his presidency: fixing the glitches in Obamacare, solidifying economic recovery, and easing tensions with the Middle East by distancing military involvement in the region. The best hope for his legacy is that he truly draws upon his executive power to remedy these problems, despite a divided Congress, rather than tackle new, ambitious aims.
Yet the crowd was awed by the speech’s end. The president commended army ranger Cory Remsburg who had shrapnel lodged in his brain from a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, leaving him with impaired speech, blind in one eye, and partially paralyzed. When Sergeant Remsburg stood up and waved to greet the applause, he stole the spotlight, overshadowing the challenges and uncertainties facing the nation that President Obama had outlined, leaving the night with an aura of humility and hope.