Anyone holding low expectations for the foreign policy segment of President Barack Obama’s State of the Union probably weren’t disappointed. Washington tradition says that foreign policy is “reserved” for the end, but seven paragraphs felt like sticking an unwanted stepchild at the end of a dinner table. Obama would mill through a predictable roll-call as he crescendoed from domestic issues to the teamwork of Osama bin Laden’s raid. Yet this perfunctory atmosphere doesn’t stop U.S. foreign policy from being on track across “the globe,” from Europe and Asia to everywhere in between: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Egypt, Israel.
Obama insists, “when we act together, there is nothing the United States of America can't achieve, that we've learned from our actions abroad over the last few years.”
The “lessons” of the President’s speech don’t warrant an extensive reaction beyond the conclusion that U.S. foreign policy will remain unchanged. One wouldn’t know that Iraq is experiencing a U.S.-infused political crisis with no end in sight; Sunni officials were “shocked” to hear Obama’s praise for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Meanwhile the Taliban’s momentum has been conclusively “broken,” although the only established metric for this claim is body counts and Pentagon statements. Obama also defended his “withdrawal” from a position of strength (60,000+ troops will remain into 2013), instead of running low on resources and time to fight a war that could persist long after 2014.
So audacious as to begin “from Pakistan to Yemen,” Obama efficiently transitioned from victorious war rhetoric to unconditionally supporting the Arab revolutions. Here America’s double-standard springs to life as he name-drops Gaddafi and al-Assad while ignoring Mubarak and Saleh. The latter is due into New York City at any moment for medical treatment after the U.S. Embassy approved his visit. Undaunted by the popular repercussions of Saleh’s visit, the White House has sacrificed Yemen’s pro-democracy movement to chase al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and preserve joint-hegemony with Saudi Arabia. Despite the high-profile death of cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, AQAP has only grown since Obama took office in 2009. He also condoned the death-by-drone of Abdulrahman, al-Awlaki’s 16 year old son who had gone to look for him.
In Yemen, Egypt, Bahrain and even Syria, the Obama administration has failed to “support policies that lead to strong and stable democracies and open markets, because tyranny is no match for liberty.”
All of these statements were readily predictable beforehand. However Obama’s address takes a more amusing turn when he begins to directly target critics of his foreign policy: “The renewal of American leadership can be felt across the globe. Our oldest alliances in Europe and Asia are stronger than ever. Our ties to the Americas are deeper. Our iron-clad commitment to Israel's security has meant the closest military cooperation between our two countries in history. We've made it clear that America is a Pacific power, and a new beginning in Burma has lit a new hope."
Some of these claims border on the truth; Washington has successfully manipulated European powers to follow its lead in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria. Hard-line rhetoric against Iran, followed by a last-minute olive branch, hedges U.S. policy on a realistic (if insincere) position. The “shift” back into Asia is naturally welcomed by America’s Pacific allies. Conversely, Chinese and Middle East underpinnings of this “Asian shift” resulted in a massive propaganda campaign with an appetite for global hegemony. Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are blocked by ongoing favoritism towards Israel - not the Palestinians, as many U.S. foreign policy pundits argue. Iraq is a crisis waiting to happen, Afghanistan is mired in stalemate and Washington’s response to the Arab revolutions has highlighted the very double-standard that Osama bin Laden declared jihad against.
America’s global presence remains an undisputed fact, but the “renewal of American leadership” skipped the Middle East. So what lessons have been learned after OBL’s triumphant killing?
Obama paradoxically declares, “From the coalitions we've built to secure nuclear materials, to the missions we've led against hunger and disease; from the blows we've dealt to our enemies; to the enduring power of our moral example, America is back. Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn't know what they're talking about.”
Apparently us "cynics" don’t know what we’re talking about - so does that mean we do?