If anyone still needed proof of President Obama’s reluctance to let foreign policy distract from his domestic agenda, he provided an excess in his State of the Union address.
In the brief foreign-policy portion of the speech, Obama revisited his constant themes: He trumpeted the end of America’s combat missions abroad (last year he cited Iraq, this year Afghanistan) and the need for allies to shoulder the burdens of fighting terrorism – with our assistance.
“I believe in a smarter kind of American leadership. We lead best when we combine military power with strong diplomacy, when we leverage our power with coalition-building.… Around the globe, it is making a difference.”
If that were true, Americans could cheer. The country can’t afford and doesn’t want more involvement in endless overseas ground wars after 13 years in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Obama’s brand of “smarter” leadership abroad is failing for reasons that seem to elude him. This gave his foreign-policy remarks a surreal quality, bearing little resemblance to facts on the ground.
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One clue to the disconnect was apparent when the president said: “We stand united with people around the world who have been targeted by terrorists – from a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris.”
If that is so, why didn’t Obama or Vice President Joe Biden join the 40 world leaders who marched in solidarity in Paris against the slaughter at Charlie Hebdo and a kosher grocery store? The White House has admitted it should have sent a senior official to the march, and the excuses given for not doing so are limp.
Perhaps Obama believed he had better things to do at home, but his absence made his strong statements of solidarity ring hollow. That same gap – between strong words and foreign-policy leadership – permeated his State of the Union foreign-policy remarks.
“We’ve learned some costly lessons over the last 13 years,” he said. “Instead of Americans patrolling the valleys of Afghanistan, we’ve trained their security forces, who have now taken the lead.”
Of course, what Obama didn’t mention is that Afghan forces are likely to collapse in the face of the Taliban if we pull out all troops (or that, faced with an Islamic State advance, Iraqi forces collapsed after 10 years of U.S. training).
Nor did Obama lay out a broad strategy for combating the Islamic State. “In Iraq and Syria, American leadership – including our military power – is stopping advance,” he said.
Yet despite these claims, the Islamic State is making territorial gains in both Iraq and Syria. America’s Arab allies are confused about U.S. goals, divided among themselves, and doing relatively little to roll back the terrorists.
The president repeated the claim that America is “supporting a moderate opposition in Syria” that can help in the fight. However, everyone knows this promised help is so limited and delayed that Syrian “moderates” will be wiped out long before it has any impact.
And notably, Obama dropped any reference to the need for President Bashar Assad to step down. How does he expect to galvanize Sunni Arab allies to keep fighting the Islamic State when they suspect he now accepts Assad’s remaining in power? The president didn’t say.
Obama claimed that his sanctions policy has “isolated Russia” over its bullying of Ukraine, yet a new infusion of Russian troops just invaded as President Vladimir Putin continues to destabilize that country.
And even on Iran, where Obama is deeply invested in the outcome and correct to ask Congress to hold off on tougher sanctions, his words rang hollow given the stalemate in negotiations.
The problem with Obama’s approach doesn’t lie with his aversion to war, or his call for “strong diplomacy” and leveraging power with coalitions. It lies with his unwillingness to put those precepts into action within an overarching framework and to exert the leadership to make those coalitions effective. His State of the Union address did little to dispel the belief that his heart is elsewhere.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.