international analysis and commentary

Obama’s light touch on foreign policy


It has been a constant refrain of President Barack Obama that “after more than a decade of war,” the United States must now “focus on nation building here at home.” In his fifth annual address on the State of the Union, he embraced this view once again, with a speech heavy on economic and domestic policy issues and generally light on foreign policy.

Only toward the end of the evening did the President discuss international affairs and he offered little that was new or unexpected in terms of his vision for the global role of the US. Instead, he stood firm on what has been a pragmatic – critics say unambitious – approach, one made of a gradual but steady withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, of less direct military interventions overseas but sustained counterterrorism efforts across the world, of mounting pressure on Iran, and of the continued isolation of the regime of Bashar al Assad in Syria.

There were, however, a few interesting details.

For one, Obama announced the return of an additional 34,000 US soldiers from Afghanistan in the next twelve months. It was the President’s latest suggestion that he is on track to end the American war there by 2014. The US will remain engaged with Kabul even beyond next year, he assured, but in a different way. “We are negotiating an agreement with the Afghan government that focuses on two missions: training and equipping Afghan forces so that the country does not again slip into chaos, and counter-terrorism efforts that allow us to pursue the remnants of al Qaeda and their affiliates,” he said.

As for the continued fight against al Qaeda, Obama did not shy away from the controversy surrounding the CIA’s secret drone program and the White House’s very own “kill list” of targeted terrorists, which has come to include even US citizens. This is an issue that forcefully came back to the fore the week leading up to the speech during the confirmation hearing of John Brennan, Obama’s counterterrorism adviser and nominee for CIA director. Congress has been long asking for more transparency on the part of the executive branch in carrying out these operations and for a stronger legal framework to regulate them. In his State of the Union address, the President pledged renewed efforts to this effect. “[I]n the months ahead,” he said, “I will continue to engage with Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world.”

It was also interesting to see him revisiting the nuclear issue after the successful round of testing carried out by the regime in Pyongyang earlier in the day. In his speech to Congress, Obama reaffirmed not only his commitment to stop North Korea’s and Iran’s programs, but also said the US would engage with Russia to further reduce their own nuclear arsenals.

By far the most original act of the President’s short foray into foreign policy, however, was his decision to prominently highlight the growing threat of cyber terrorism, both for the government and for the American economy. In fact, just days before the speech, a new National Intelligence Estimate had declared the US the target of an unprecedented campaign of cyber-espionage. After signing an executive order setting new standards for protecting the nation’s networks, in his address Obama asked that Congress follow the lead of the White House and take much needed legislative action in this arena.

Finally, Obama announced “talks on a comprehensive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union – because trade that is free and fair across the Atlantic supports millions of good-paying American jobs.” A promising sign for US-EU relations, although this is just the beginning of what will likely be a long negotiating process.

In a column this week, the Washington Post’s opinion writer Richard Cohen had dubbed President Obama’s a “look the other way” doctrine of foreign policy, especially with regard to Syria and his reticence to intervene in the civil war there.

His latest address on the State of the Union did not necessarily help dispel the doubts of those who view him this way.

Reading between the lines, however, one cannot help but notice that Obama is a visionary in his own way. China, though never directly mentioned by name, was nevertheless peppered throughout the speech (from the economy to cyber crime). One of several indications that the President is seeking to turn the page from the last decade of wars in the Muslim world to concentrate on a very different, and no less daunting, set of global challenges that the US will likely be facing going forward.