On Tuesday night, on prime-time television, US President Barack Obama delivered his sixth annual State of the Union Address to a joint session of Congress. Analysts, pundits, and political leaders worldwide read it carefully to try to gain a sense of the president’s thinking for the coming year—and, given the role the US plays in the world, that is as true abroad as at home.
The State of the Union Address is a requirement of the Constitution, which states: “[The President] shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” It is agenda-setting time, and also a direct appeal to the American people regarding what he believes is most important.
Given that, as in most other countries, US elections turn mostly on domestic issues, it is not surprising that the classic State of the Union Address—shortened to the inelegant “SOTU” —does not dwell too much on foreign policy, unless the nation is in the midst of war or a major crisis. And so it was this week with Obama, who devoted only a quarter of his address to the outside world, and much of that was linked to domestic concerns—economic competitiveness (including education), steps to inhibit climate change, and the necessary and deserved tribute to America’s fighting men and women.
Nevertheless, it was striking that, when he did discuss foreign policy and national security, he spent most time on the Middle East and its environs, including the end of combat in Iraq, the draw-down of US troops from Afghanistan, the continuing fight against terrorism, limits on the use of drones, and, once again, a pledge to close the Guantanamo military prison.
If one can judge from the number of words the president devoted to each topic—and in a speech necessarily focused on domestic matters, one can’t do that—then the rest of the world got short shrift. There were a few sentences on trade and a few more on the move towards energy independence (Middle East oil producers take note), plus a few words on Europe and the Far East and a sentence each on Ukraine and Africa, but none on the European Union, the rest of Asia, or Latin America. But what did that matter in a speech aimed primarily at a domestic audience?
Now for the Middle East. In addition to the murky future of Afghanistan and—unnamed in the speech itself¬—Pakistan, Obama faces a daunting three-part agenda. First, the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, where US Secretary of State John Kerry is making valiant efforts, but where the odds are still against him. That merited only one sentence in the SOTU, and Obama said little more about the raging civil war in Syria, with no US commitment to expand its engagement, but with one significant reference: “In Syria, we’ll support the opposition that rejects the agenda of terrorist networks.” This was a clear message to the regional supporters of Al-Qaeda and its affiliates to “cut it out.”
Given severe limits on the domestic political capital he can spend on fraught Middle-East issues, Obama has clearly decided to play down Syria and Israel-Palestine in favor of a more immediate and unavoidable concern: Iran, where the clock is ticking on a six-month timetable to move forward the Joint Action Plan, whose implementation began on January 20. His focus is also understandable because of significant opposition in the US Congress, based mostly on domestic politics, to what he has done so far, as well as opposition from Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other partners in the region.
In the SOTU itself, Obama argued that much has already been achieved, notably capping critical aspects of Iran’s nuclear program. He also reiterated: “We are clear-eyed about Iran’s support for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, which threaten our allies.” And he made the ritual incantation that “if Iran’s leaders do not seize this opportunity, then I will be the first to call for more sanctions and stand ready to exercise all options to make sure Iran does not build a nuclear weapon.” But Obama put his heaviest emphasis on negotiations and even invoked the Cold War talks of former US presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan with the Soviet Union. He then delivered his most important point: “Let me be clear: if this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it.”
To the extent that Obama’s words can accurately be read as reflecting his intent, he is sending a precise message: negotiating successfully with Iran—if that proves possible—is a critical foreign policy priority, with the objective of “resolv[ing] one of the leading security challenges of our time without the risks of war.” Opponents of the president need to think carefully.
All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.