January 25, 2011

Obama's Just Not Into Foreign Policy

Having anticipated a domestic State of the Union address months before the White House unveiled President Barack Obama’s intended focus - economic growth and alternative energy - we’re thankful for not having to alter our rebuttal. An hour of speech and almost no mention of the world beyond America’s borders. The definition of lip service:
Look to Iraq, where nearly 100,000 of our brave men and women have left with their heads held high; where American combat patrols have ended; violence has come down; and a new government has been formed. This year, our civilians will forge a lasting partnership with the Iraqi people, while we finish the job of bringing our troops out of Iraq. America's commitment has been kept; the Iraq War is coming to an end. Of course, as we speak, al Qaeda and their affiliates continue to plan attacks against us. Thanks to our intelligence and law enforcement professionals, we are disrupting plots and securing our cities and skies. And as extremists try to inspire acts of violence within our borders, we are responding with the strength of our communities, with respect for the rule of law, and with the conviction that American Muslims are a part of our American family.
Now Iraqis die by the hundreds rather than thousands - and Obama appears to connect Iraq to 9/11.
We have also taken the fight to al Qaeda and their allies abroad. In Afghanistan, our troops have taken Taliban strongholds and trained Afghan Security Forces. Our purpose is clear - by preventing the Taliban from reestablishing a stranglehold over the Afghan people, we will deny al Qaeda the safe-haven that served as a launching pad for 9/11. Thanks to our heroic troops and civilians, fewer Afghans are under the control of the insurgency. There will be tough fighting ahead, and the Afghan government will need to deliver better governance. But we are strengthening the capacity of the Afghan people and building an enduring partnership with them. This year, we will work with nearly 50 countries to begin a transition to an Afghan lead. And this July, we will begin to bring our troops home. In Pakistan, al Qaeda's leadership is under more pressure than at any point since 2001. Their leaders and operatives are being removed from the battlefield. Their safe-havens are shrinking. And we have sent a message from the Afghan border to the Arabian Peninsula to all parts of the globe: we will not relent, we will not waver, and we will defeat you.
So goes the depth of U.S. strategy for defeating al-Qaeda’s hydra.
American leadership can also be seen in the effort to secure the worst weapons of war. Because Republicans and Democrats approved the New START Treaty, far fewer nuclear weapons and launchers will be deployed. Because we rallied the world, nuclear materials are being locked down on every continent so they never fall into the hands of terrorists. Because of a diplomatic effort to insist that Iran meet its obligations, the Iranian government now faces tougher and tighter sanctions than ever before. And on the Korean peninsula, we stand with our ally South Korea, and insist that North Korea keeps its commitment to abandon nuclear weapons. This is just a part of how we are shaping a world that favors peace and prosperity. With our European allies, we revitalized NATO, and increased our cooperation on everything from counter-terrorism to missile defense. We have reset our relationship with Russia, strengthened Asian alliances, and built new partnerships with nations like India. This March, I will travel to Brazil, Chile, and El Salvador to forge new alliances for progress in the Americas.
Around the globe, we are standing with those who take responsibility - helping farmers grow more food; supporting doctors who care for the sick; and combating the corruption that can rot a society and rob people of opportunity. Recent events have shown us that what sets us apart must not just be our power - it must be the purpose behind it. In South Sudan - with our assistance - the people were finally able to vote for independence after years of war. Thousands lined up before dawn. People danced in the streets. One man who lost four of his brothers at war summed up the scene around him: "This was a battlefield for most of my life. Now we want to be free." We saw that same desire to be free in Tunisia, where the will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator. And tonight, let us be clear: the United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people.
Wikileaks helped jump-start the Jasmine Revolution by leaking America’s support for Tunisia’s oppressive regime.

There are two basic ways of going about a State of the Union address: cast a wide net and address the full spectrum of U.S. policy - domestic and foreign - or, given that too wide a sweep may generate little clarity, narrow the topics and elaborate in detail.

Each of these options has its merits and downsides. A comprehensive speech, if delivered with the proper expertise, is the best course available as it offers something for everyone. Public debate is encouraged in this way. Focusing on several topics also tends to drag them out in a speech format, while a speech divided into dense bites has no time to stall. Third-generation warfare evolved the sequential attack; fourth-generation warfare evolved the simultaneous attack.

The same goes for the evolution of political oratory.

The main disadvantage of range is that few possess the ability. We do not pretend to understand the complexities of economics or health care, just as President Obama should stick to what he knows and not feign knowledge of his deficiencies. “Know your limit,” goes the common philosophical maxim. Thus a president should narrow their focus if they cannot expand to the full range of U.S. policy.

The flaw in this thinking allows the president to pick and choose his own interests rather than abide by the country’s overriding interests. Though the SOU is an opportunity for the president to lay out his priorities, there’s no guarantee that they’ll order correctly. Some topics are inevitably shelved and can experience prolonged darkness. Trade and green energy are obviously vital to America, especially with unemployment refusing to decline, and the White House’s recovery plan is the issue everyone wants to hear about.

Fundamentally, a strong domestic policy is necessary to sustain a progressive foreign policy. A weak economy leads to reduced power projection, the exact reaction to America’s financial crisis.

But focusing solely on economics leaves those issues people don’t want to hear about to languish in the shadows of Washington’s establishment, polluting their transparency and opening them to manipulation. Despite 60% disapproval, Afghanistan ranks 9th in American priorities and Obama treats the war as such. Yet he’s not just speaking to what people want to hear. Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars “revealed” that White House officials intentionally exploit America’s domestic woes to divert attention from its crumbling foreign policy.

They concluded that the U.S. public was too distracted by the economy to mount a resistance to Obama’s surge.

Part of the president’s job, however, is to raise those issues that Americans don’t want to hear. The SOU was designed to shed transparency on U.S. governance, yet for too long has been perverted by politics. And Obama, “the transparent president,” is as guilty as any other. He could be "saving" Afghanistan for 2012, but by then it will be too late to change U.S. perceptions. Or he may never directly address Afghanistan during a State of the Union speech, as if it’s not part of America’s future.

And delaying once more reinforces the concrete impression that Obama is over his head in Afghanistan, outmaneuvered by the Pentagon and at a lost for a real exit.

The greater problem in mentioning Afghanistan necessitates the rest of al-Qaeda’s theater, which Obama surely wishes to avoid. And he did. He can’t travel to North Africa, Yemen, Somalia - countries that undermine the rational for a prolonged occupation in Afghanistan. Not when he and his advisers have few answers for any of these conflicts, nor the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Sudan’s impending split, or China’s expanding hegemony.

“Know the limit,” but a low limit spells bad tidings.

A complete avoidance of foreign policy has solidified the perception that Obama is overwhelmed by world affairs. For all of his “worldliness,” he's simply (and ironically) not a foreign policy kind of guy. This poses no problem in theory, as leaders come with diverse skill-sets and interests.

But practically speaking, four addresses later and still no details on foreign policy, this theory will turn into a nightmare.

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