The foreign-policy portion of President Obama’s State of the Union address was among the shortest, if not the shortest, in the annual speech since the start of World War II. But it was laced with tantalizing statements about portentous decisions and policies in the offing. Mr. Obama most certainly didn’t intend to downgrade national security. Rather, he didn’t want international issues to divert from his main message: the economy and jobs.
Actually, the president served up some potentially meaty stuff, but deliberately didn’t elaborate on what he had in mind. He offered rather strong declarations of intent to wind down major American involvement in the Iraq and Afghan wars. He omitted any reference to Pakistan and Yemen, though proudly stressed that his efforts had killed more terrorists in 2009 than had been killed in 2008. Perhaps we will hear more of the new military doctrine to fight terrorism that lies behind this boast within the year. He ritualistically reaffirmed his previous commitments to reducing the risks of global warming and the spread of nuclear weapons, as well as increasing America’s energy independence, though he offered scant detail. He also made a rather remarkable pledge to double U.S. exports within five years.
As with most things Obama, everyone will have to wait and see what he really means and whether he will mean the same thing three months from now.
Commentators didn’t make much of what he said about ending America’s combat role in Iraq, come what may. “Make no mistake: This war is ending, and all of our troops are coming home,” Obama said. In other words, he was telling Americans and Iraqis that the United States has given the Iraqi people every chance and made vast sacrifices to develop a stable and peaceful society. And now, regardless of whether the Iraqis are ready, the United States is turning their country back over to them, as previously pledged by President George W. Bush and Iraqi leaders. Best that such a message be repeated and emphasized in coming months so that no one will be surprised when all U.S. combat troops leave Iraq by August.
• Watch the 9 Key Moments of Obama’s Speech• Daily Beast experts rate the State of the UnionNor did media pundits seem to make much of Obama’s reaffirmation of his promise to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan in July 2011. “In Afghanistan, we are increasing our troops and training Afghan security forces,” he said, “so they can begin to take the lead in July of 2011, and our troops can begin to come home.” The significance of this derives from the fact that his subordinates have been arguing publicly over precisely this point since he announced that July deadline at West Point more than two months ago. Pentagon officials and military brass (sometimes with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s support) have repeatedly stated that whatever might happen in July 2011 will depend entirely on conditions on the ground in Afghanistan. In other words, they’re saying that there might not be any U.S. troop withdrawals at that time. And they will take that stance most vigorously when the time comes. But Mr. Obama is now saying he will stick to his guns, so to speak. We’ll see.
Obama did not elaborate on his self-congratulatory remarks about killing terrorists. But he has approved actions in northwest Pakistan and in Yemen that suggest an important and quite constructive new military doctrine for fighting terrorists. In neither of these countries is Obama at all likely to deal with the terrorist problem by dispatching U.S. ground forces as was done in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, drones have been deployed to gain intelligence and to kill terrorists, aided by more skillful intelligence operations, U.S. Special Forces units, and better training of indigenous friendly forces. Finally, a U.S. administration seems to be on precisely the right track for combating terrorism. This approach is infinitely cheaper than fighting massive ground wars and potentially more effective—as operational techniques are being perfected. Hopefully, Mr. Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the military will have much more to say about this promising doctrine in the coming months.
Obama added little to his signature efforts on global warming and preventing nuclear proliferation. Perhaps he is reevaluating how much time and muscle he should put into these enterprises at this point, and perhaps he will soon formulate his proximate goals in more achievable language.
Perhaps his most astonishing statement on America and the world was his promise to “double our exports over the next five years, an increase that will support two million jobs in America.” How will he perform this miracle? Will it be by investing in new American technologies? Will it entail hammering China to increase the value of its currency against the dollar to make American exports cheaper? Stay very tuned for the solution to this mystery.
As with most things Obama, everyone will have to wait and see what he really means, whether he will mean the same thing three months from now, and whether he will not only fight, but fight effectively to get what he’s promised done.
My only real regret about Wednesday night’s speech regarding national security is that the president did not elaborate on the key theme he set forth at West Point—namely that the American economy is the basis of America’s international power. That’s precisely the right point, and he’s got to begin to explain it sharply and simply. It will mean de-emphasizing major ground operations abroad to fight terrorism, emphasizing new counterterrorism techniques, taking greater and more complicated risks with more uncertainties with regard to terrorist footholds in failing states, and making major sacrifices at home in the form of higher taxes on the wealthy and curbing pork-barrel waste. It’s past time for President Obama to start explaining these complexities and making the case for these sacrifices.
Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.