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The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are over, Iran has halted its nuclear program, drones and government spying are under control, and the United States is supporting democracy “from Tunisia to Burma.” Such was the world of President Barack Obama’s fifth State of the Union speech Tuesday night.
The reality, however, is far crueler: U.S.-led invasions have left behind two ravaged and ill-governed nations, revelations of mass surveillance have damaged trust domestically and abroad, and democracy is on life support in most of the same Arab countries whose uprisings captivated foreign audiences, including Obama, in 2011.
If Obama’s first State of the Union speech, in 2010, approached what may have been his most grandiose aspirations for U.S. national security and foreign policy — rejecting “the false choice between protecting our people and upholding our values” — four years of grim experience made the 2014 edition an inadvertent reality check notable mostly for its lacunas.
Though Obama — for the first time in such an address — acknowledged the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay and the government’s use of armed drones in foreign countries, his call to close the prison and his assurance that he has “imposed prudent limits” on unmanned aerial vehicles seemed tenuously connected to the reality of congressional opposition to closing Guantanamo and the numerous and ongoing civilian deaths caused by drones.
“Today, all of our troops are out of Iraq,” he said. “More than 60,000 of our troops have already come home from Afghanistan,” and Kabul is ready to take responsibility for “its own future” as U.S. troops step aside. By the end of the year, he said, “America’s longest war will finally be over.”
These statements may have been true, but the story they glossed over was troubling.
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.
“We have a huge stake in the outcome,” he said then, and a year later he promised to “stand with citizens as they demand their universal rights, and support stable transitions to democracy.”
But on Tuesday, those Arab nations had all but disappeared from Obama’s agenda. Only Tunisia, which can point to a new constitution hammered out through mostly peaceful debate over three years, merited inclusion.
Since Obama pledged to “stand with citizens,” the United States has proved unwilling or unable to — at least in public — push the Arab transitions toward democracy. In Yemen, many activists have become disenchanted with a supposed post-revolution “national dialogue” that mostly concerns the privileges of the elite. In Libya, where U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed in September 2012, a weak central government has not been able to curb lawlessness, and rogue militias now boast de facto control of parts of the country’s east, including significant amounts of its lucrative oil. In Egypt, the country’s first freely elected president was ousted in a popular coup and more than 1,000 of his supporters were killed by security forces, ushering in what could be the return of an army general to lead the nation, which is in the midst of a spasm of anti-American fervor.
Not every plank of Obama’s foreign policy agenda was marred by unremarked-on setbacks and disasters. When it came to Iran, he devoted three paragraphs — around two minutes — to his fraught but so far successful efforts to persuade the government in Tehran to pause much of its nuclear program and submit to more inspections.
He portrayed the diplomacy from a realist’s point of view. Gone was any trace of the “wave of change” rhetoric; the problem was now one of national security.
“We are clear-eyed about Iran’s support for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah,” Obama said, adding that he stood ready to “exercise all options to make sure Iran does not build a nuclear weapon.”
But he sounded confident in his plan and his chances to resolve “one of the leading security challenges of our time.” If Congress passed a new bill to increase sanctions on Iran, as many lawmakers have said they would like to do despite the administration’s protestations, Obama promised to veto it, a declaration that some may view as a rebuke to the seemingly disempowered pro-Israel lobby.
Over the course of five speeches, Obama’s foreign policy pledges have met with increasing defeats. There are occasional and exalted successes — such as troop withdrawals, nuclear negotiations with Iran and the killing of Osama bin Laden — but they stand in the shadow of unmentioned setbacks, including frayed relations with Russia and much that has occurred in the Arab world since 2011.
“We know the process will be messy,” Obama said in 2013 about Middle Eastern transitions to come. But maybe he didn’t know it would be this messy.
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