Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Obama's SOTU

I usually don't expect much from State of the Union (SOTU) addresses. In recent years, they have primarily served as platforms for presidents to express cliches, pander to Americans and make vague promises. I had especially low expectations for Obama's SOTU Tuesday night. Mostly, this had less to do with Obama as a politician than with situation he finds himself in right now. The economy is still in the tank and election season is already here. With that in mind, he'd spend quite a bit of time calming voters, restoring confidence in his administration, and making the case for his reelection later this year.

Of course, Obama would spend most of time on domestic issues and economic concerns. Other than highlighting past successes, I didn't think Obama would talk too much about foreign policy. And to the extent that he would, I anticipated Obama avoiding meaty topics or wading into much substance on any particular issue.

So what happened?

His thoughts and words on foreign policy were geared around the upcoming election. They were predictable, cautious, and self-congratulatory. He wanted to reassure voters that the U.S. is on the right track. In a sign of things to come, Obama opened his speech with the following lines:

We gather tonight knowing that this generation of heroes has made the United States safer and more respected around the world. For the first time in nine years, there are no Americans fighting in Iraq. For the first time in two decades, Osama bin Laden is not a threat to this country. Most of al Qaeda’s top lieutenants have been defeated. The Taliban’s momentum has been broken, and some troops in Afghanistan have begun to come home.

To be sure, these are all good things. But let's face it, in pointing out his administration's successes to, there's some back-slapping here. In short, he's reminding us of his national security credentials so as to inoculate himself against the probable charges from republicans that he, as a democrat, is weak on foreign affairs. To the contrary, according to Obama, the U.S. is safer and more secure under his watch. It's still strong, able to project power outside of its borders to thwart and defeat its enemies.

Or take another example. In this politco-economic environment, it's routine practice, especially among the Republican presidential contenders and their supporters, to pick on China. They complain, with some justification, about China's piracy, it's currency, and its unfair business practices. In line with this rhetoric, ostensibly to show that he too is concerned about China and willing to stand up to Beijing, Obama proclaimed:

I will go anywhere in the world to open new markets for American products. And I will not stand by when our competitors don’t play by the rules. We’ve brought trade cases against China at nearly twice the rate as the last administration –- and it’s made a difference. Over a thousand Americans are working today because we stopped a surge in Chinese tires. But we need to do more. It’s not right when another country lets our movies, music, and software be pirated. It’s not fair when foreign manufacturers have a leg up on ours only because they’re heavily subsidized.
Tonight, I’m announcing the creation of a Trade Enforcement Unit that will be charged with investigating unfair trading practices in countries like China. There will be more inspections to prevent counterfeit or unsafe goods from crossing our borders. And this Congress should make sure that no foreign company has an advantage over American manufacturing when it comes to accessing financing or new markets like Russia. Our workers are the most productive on Earth, and if the playing field is level, I promise you -– America will always win. 

My biggest problem with Obama's speech is with what he didn't say or explain. And there were lots of things left unsaid or unexplained. Granted, because of time constraints and various important domestic concerns, Obama couldn't fit every salient foreign policy into his SOTU. Even so, there are a number of foreign policy topics I'm mildly surprised he completely overlooked. Below is an abbreviated list of such topics.

1. Not a word was mentioned on U.S.-China relations, which is, at least to me, odd considering that China is the second most powerful state in the world and clearly a strategic competitor to America.

2. Obama has stated that he won't let Iran go nuclear. Sure, fine, but how will U.S. prevent this from happening? What if negotiations just don't work?

3. Is Obama satisfied with the direction taken by Arab Spring countries like Egypt and Tunisia?

4. What about the violence in Syria? What, if anything, is the U.S. prepared to do if the death and destruction indefinitely persists?

5. The conflict in Afghanistan isn't over, no matter what Obama implied. As we know, violence is still an everyday occurrence. So what's the plan? What if peace talks with the militants fail? And would that extend America's commitment there? What's the alternative to the ongoing talks?

6. How does Washington plan to deal with North Korea during its political transition to Kim Jong Un?

7. So much for the idea that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is central to solving so many of the ills in the Middle East, as Obama didn't touch the issue at all.

8. What about Europe's economic troubles? Is Obama concerned? Should Americans be concerned? Why?

9. Obama claimed a "renewal of American leadership can be felt across the globe." What's the evidence? What specifically does he have in mind?

What say you? Are there other foreign policy issues you believe Obama should have addressed in his SOTU?

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