Click for more on the president's annual policy speech
In Iraq, violence is approaching levels not seen since the late ’00s, when the insurgency was at its worst. The government has confronted a rash of bombings and prison breaks, and fighters allied with Al-Qaeda have crossed the border from Syria and taken over cities in the west. In Afghanistan, the Taliban has managed to continue widespread attacks, and the government of Hamid Karzai — which may pass into the hands of his brother this year — has proved willing to strain ties with the United States, which desperately hopes to retain drone and special forces bases in the country.
Obama, to use his own words from 2010, took office “amid two wars, an economy rocked by a severe recession, a financial system on the verge of collapse and a government deeply in debt.”
Facing one of the worst economic crashes in U.S. history, it is no surprise that he has devoted the majority of his efforts — and more than 80 percent of his five State of the Union speeches — to domestic policy.
But when it came to the nearly 6,400 words he has spared for foreign affairs and national security, Obama’s yearly addresses — much like his presidency — have been dominated by themes of war and terrorist threats, and sprinkled with lofty rhetoric often thwarted by cold facts.
His speeches have traced the biggest foreign policy moments of his administration, from promises kept (withdrawing combat troops from Iraq and Afghanistan) to ambitions that now seem remarkably naive, such as when he stated, in 2012, that he had “no doubt” Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would “soon discover that the forces of change cannot be reversed, and that human dignity cannot be denied.”
Two years later, Obama said on Tuesday that the United States would “continue to work with the international community to usher in the future … free of dictatorship” and hailed “American diplomacy, backed by threat of force” for persuading Assad to destroy his chemical weapons stockpile.
Obama never named Assad, nor did he mention that the diplomacy which led Assad to give up his chemical weapons was largely accidental. Again, his rhetoric skipped over a worsening situation. Assad’s government has pressed on with its war with assistance from Hezbollah, Iran and Russia, and it continues to imprison and kill dissidents unabated. Vast swaths of the country have become the fiefdoms of feuding rebels, many of them extreme jihadis who could easily turn their sights on the United States when they move on from Syria. Assad’s government and the official opposition seem far from making even a preliminary agreement for negotiations.
But while Obama at least began to address the issues posed by Syria’s civil war, he left unmentioned most of the remainder of the so-called Arab Spring, a series of events that had received prominent billing during his 2012 speech, a year after the uprisings. Then, Obama named the capitals of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya as he praised the “wave of change” that had washed over the region.