What the World Learns from What Obama Didn’t Say

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Strategic decision-makers in the Middle East, Europe and Asia who stayed up late to catch President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday may have initially wondered why they had bothered. In sharp contrast to the Bush era when three quarters of a typical SOTU address covered matters of national security and the projection of power abroad, Obama had precious little to say about his intentions on the global stage. Indeed, the U.S. military figured most prominently in Obama’s speech as an inspiring example of the cooperation, commitment and shared sacrifice that will be asked of all Americans in tackling the country’s economic woes.

Obama stressed that he’s the President bringing the troops home, having accomplished their mission in Iraq, killed Osama bin Laden and “broken the Taliban’s momentum” (the last a somewhat optimistic take on the state of play in Afghanistan). He certainly didn’t seem to be preparing Americans for new military engagements abroad — save for keeping the proverbial “all options on the table” in dealing with Iran. Even then, he made plain his preference for diplomacy and his belief that it had to be given time to work, in concert with sanctions.

Iran was the only point of aggravation abroad that received any attention at all in the SOTU (unless you count the President’s expressing the hope that Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad is swept out of power by his own people), and even then it was given short shrift in a matter of seconds towards the end of the 50-minute speech: Obama noted that his Administration’s diplomacy had imposed “crippling sanctions” on the Islamic Republic. “Let there be no doubt,” he warned, “America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal.” That line drew applause, but it was quickly followed by this: “But a peaceful resolution of this issue is still possible, and far better, and if Iran changes course and meets its obligations, it can rejoin the community of nations.”

Then, after checking the related box of proclaiming an “ironclad” commitment to Israel’s security, he pivoted to America the reemergent Pacific power, the breakthrough with Burma and renewing American leadership.

Had Obama been preparing the country for a military showdown with Iran, it would have behooved him to paint that country as a grave and gathering danger that must be confronted with resolute force as a matter of urgency — think Bush’s 2002 and 2003 SOTU speeches. But that’s not how Washington sees Iran. It shares the Western intelligence consensus that while Iran steadily expands the dual-use technologies that would allow it to build a nuclear weapon, the leadership in Tehran has not taken the strategic decision to build a bomb, much less operationalized a program to do so. Hence Obama’s point that diplomacy backed by sanctions pressure needs to be given more time to produce a change in Iran’s behavior.

This is a president girding for a different battle, on the home front, against economic decline and inequality — and, of course, for his reelection. But although he didn’t talk much about it, a perilous global environment could yet produce some uncomfortable challenges for the President in the year ahead.

Despite the Administration’s best intentions, there remains a danger that miscalculation or provocation by Iran or by Israel — which insists that it retains the right to independent military action against Iran should it deem Western efforts insufficient — could spark a confrontation that would force Washington to respond, particularly with GOP candidates making a top talking point out of their claim that Obama is feckless in the face of an Iran threat.

But even some of the issues under which the President sought to draw a line may not be quite as cut and dried as he’d prefer. “For the first time in nine years there are no Americans fighting in Iraq”, Obama noted. That may be true for uniformed personnel, but the U.S. embassy commands at least 4,000 armed civilian contractors, and thousands more diplomatic personnel in a country whose sectarian political conflicts once again threaten to tear it apart at the seams. While there may be little the U.S. can do about Iran’s deep-seated domestic political conflicts, a renewed civil war breaking out around the remaining Americans in Iraq will be used by Obama’s opponents to paint the decision to withdraw as a tragic error — even if it proceeded on the basis of an agreement between Baghdad and President George W. Bush.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban’s momentum has often been a of seasonal phenomenon; the salient reality remains that after more than ten years of war, the U.S. and its allies are no closer to defeating the insurgency — indeed, the focus of the U.S. and its allies has turned increasingly towards negotiating peace terms with the Taliban ahead of the planned U.S. withdrawal in 2014. “No talks with the Taliban” is another Republican campaign bumper sticker.

Libya’s longtime tyrant Colonel Muammar Gaddafi is gone, as President Obama noted, and the use of NATO air power to help bring that about was previously hailed by the Administration as a model of “intervention lite”. But his ouster has left a power vacuum being filled by competing militias, with the country’s fragile new order threatening to unravel in a chaotic and violent power struggle.

Other potential flash-points that didn’t rate a mention in the SOTU, but which could break uncomfortably for the President this year, include:

* North Korea’s newly installed “Brilliant Leader” Kim Jong Un looking to demonstrate his manhood by launching new provocations across the world’s most dangerous geopolitical frontline;

* Syria, where the escalating violence is fueling calls for an intervention of which the Western powers remain skeptical given the complex sectarian and geopolitical implications;

* Renewed conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in the absence of any prospect of negotiations ending the occupation of the West Bank as Israeli settlers look to expand their grip and Palestinian communities look to the protest tactics of the Arab Spring; and

* The growing threat of a de facto military takeover or Islamist ascendancy — or some combination of the two — in Pakistan, at a time when relations with the U.S. are at an all-time low and showing no sign of reviving.

But the gravest of the dangers gathering beyond these shores to American well-being — and therefore to President Obama’s reelection prospects — is another one that didn’t rate a mention in the SOTU address: Europe’s expanding financial crisis, which leaves U.S. banks exposed to another round of shocks of the sort suffered by the global financial system in the wake of the Lehmann Brothers collapse, and which looks set to the sink a prime U.S. export market into the mire of recession. It’s hard, though, to fault President Obama for not mentioning the dangers the U.S. faces as a result of Europe’s troubles and the inability of the continent’s leaders to get a grip on the situation. Despite the potential consequences of the continent’s crisis, the U.S. these days has precious little leverage over European decision-making.