New Paradigms Forum
January 26, 2011
by Christopher Ford
To judge from his second State of the Union address last night (January 25, 2011), President Obama’s heart clearly lies in issues related to U.S. domestic politics and his economic and social agenda. National security and foreign policy issues were not entirely ignored, for no president could really get away with sweeping them utterly under the rug in this time of international challenges. Not much, however, was said about them. That said, it is interesting to note what President Obama actually chose to emphasize – and how he chose to say it – when discussing these matters.
It is telling, for instance, that in the brief remarks he devoted anything related to national security, President Obama devoted considerably more time to the issue of gays in the U.S. military (95 words) than to the situation in Iraq (72 words). His defense of scrapping the Clinton Administration’s rules on homosexual military service also received much more attention than the nuclear crises with Iran and North Korea combined (a mere 24 words each).
Indeed, Obama spent more than four times as much time urging America to emulate South Korean approaches to education and information technology spending, and lauding the possible U.S. employment impact of a trade agreement with Seoul (102 words all together), than he did discussing the North Korean dictatorship that on this president’s watch has conducted a nuclear weapons test, multiple ballistic missile launches, and two military attacks against South Korea. (Those events on the Korean Peninsula apparently weren’t felt important enough to mention at all.) China was mentioned four times in the speech, but only in passing, and exclusively as a model of economic competitiveness to be emulated, and a partner with whom to strike trade deals that will “support” – rather, apparently, than “create” – U.S. jobs. One can infer much from all this about the perspectives and priorities of the current White House.
In what little President Obama actually did say about foreign policy and security issues, moreover, he spent a lot of time using a vague and magisterial “we” in discussing U.S. policies and accomplishments. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, of course: a president is perfectly entitled to do some bragging about accomplishments – especially in a State of the Union address. In this case, however, the “we” served an interesting purpose: it allowed him to blur the line between his administration and that of George W. Bush. According to President Obama, “we” have done many good things. Yet while he clearly intended to encourage listeners to believe that the relevant “we” was the Obama Administration, his phrasing frequently described policies of which he was not the principal author, thus permitting him to disguise considerable continuity with the Bush Administration – and, of course, to claim credit for what this continuity has achieved.
How remarkable, for instance, to hear the president declare that “we” have now “begun” to “defeat determined enemies” and build coalitions against them, that “[w]e have … taken the fight to al Qaeda and their allies abroad,” that terrorist leaders are being “removed from the battlefield,” and that “in Afghanistan, our troops have taken Taliban strongholds and trained Afghan Security Forces.” He is proud that our fortitude in fighting terrorists has “sent a message from the Afghan border to the Arabian Peninsula to all parts of the globe: we will not relent, we will not waver, and we will defeat you.” President Obama does not mention the Bush troop “surge” and counter-insurgency strategy he continued in Iraq, but he’s clearly delighted that it worked: he brags that we have now accomplished our goals there – “combat patrols have ended; violence has come down; and a new government has been formed” – and that “the Iraq war is coming to an end.” (The State of the Union doesn’t contain the phrase, but “Mission Accomplished” seems now to be Obama’s Iraq mantra. Fascinating!) No mention was made last night of the Obama Administration’s accomplishments in continuing to detain dangerous terrorists at Guantánamo, kill terrorist leaders in the field by means of drone aircraft strikes, and prosecute detainees before specially-created military commissions, but the president might just as well have thrown these in too....
But such artful administration-conflating credit-taking doesn’t stop there. More than five years after the Bush Administration’s strategic rapprochement with India, Obama crowed that “[w]e have … built new partnerships with nations like India.” The president also lauded international efforts to “lock down” nuclear materials to help keep them out of the hands of terrorists – a program which he has indeed worked to accelerate, but which began two decades ago for the countries of the Former Soviet Union, and was expanded into a global initiative under Obama’s predecessor. Obama also observed that Iran faces sanctions today “[b]ecause of a diplomatic effort to insist that Iran meet its obligations” – an effort, of course, that U.S. diplomats began at the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2002, and which has included four rounds of gradually toughening U.N. Security Council sanctions since 2006, in response to Iran’s continued defiance.
It’s not clear what Obama meant in saying that “[w]e revitalized NATO,” but it’s worth remembering that the transformation of that organization from a Cold War defensive alliance into a very different and much broader institution focused upon global issues and far-flung conflicts has been underway for twenty years. (The expansion of NATO’s membership to Eastern Europe, its inaugural war in the Balkans, the first-ever invocation of the collective security provisions of the NATO Treaty after 9/11, and the organization’s pathbreaking combined-arms operation in Afghanistan all predate the Obama presidency.) Perhaps the president meant to laud the recent and relatively successful NATO Summit in Lisbon, but leaving aside the emergent intra-Alliance acrimony there over nuclear weapon deployments in Europe, the most noteworthy accomplishment at Lisbon was the articulation of NATO support for territorial missile defense. Perhaps Barack Obama wishes to be remembered as a supporter of missile defense – previously a signature issue for George W. Bush and Congressional Republicans – but one wonders.
President Obama certainly deserves credit for continuing – and in some cases expanding – the policies that have produced these results, and one shouldn’t begrudge a bit of over-broad disingenuous credit-claiming in a State of the Union address. Speaking as a former Bush administration appointee, I would prefer the Obama Administration to adopt Bush policies and pretend they haven’t, than actually to reject its predecessors’ approaches. From my perspective, policy continuity is commendable, particularly in the national security arena.
As former Vice President Dick Cheney recently put it, it does indeed seem to be the case that Barack Obama has “learned that what we did was far more appropriate than he ever gave us credit for while he was a candidate. So I think he’s learned from experience.” And it’s well past time for our international partners and adversaries to learn that on issues such as nonproliferation and counter-terrorism, most U.S. policies – including a good many controversial ones – are grounded in enduring American interests, rather than in narrow partisan or ideological ones that can be expected to change dramatically from one administration to the next.
For the most part, however, the most interesting thing about the foreign policy and national security aspects of Obama’s second State of the Union speech is what he did not say. Take nonproliferation, for example. Frankly, the president’s cursory treatment of this subject illustrates that there just isn’t much to say about it right now, or at least nothing reassuring and self-congratulatory enough for inclusion in a State of the Union address after a humiliating mid-term election.
The president correctly noted that sanctions on Iran have become tougher, but he didn’t see fit to mention why these sanctions had been adopted, and why they were necessary. This omission was no doubt considered essential, however, because these Iran sanctions don’t actually seem very likely to accomplish their foremost goal: reversing Iran’s rush toward a nuclear weapons capability. To mention that objective would tend to make U.S. policy seem rather more like a failure than a success.
All President Obama had to say about North Korea, moreover, is that we continue to “insist” that it fulfill its denuclearization promises. Pyongyang is in no danger of actually denuclearizing, and its behavior on Obama’s watch has been pretty awful, even by North Korean standards. To judge by last night’s speech, however, these are just insignificant details. Obama did not even have the grace to admit that the world faces grave and worsening proliferation challenges in both cases. (Policy continuity here is no defense, either. Obama’s approach is largely unchanged since the second term of the Bush Administration, and has produced equally meager results.) In both of these nuclear crises, the key thing just seems to be that the president is proud to have the right rhetorical position: his audience is not encouraged to ask about results.
In some ways, the most important silence of the president’s address was about one of the policies he sought most assiduously to make a signature issue upon coming into the office: nuclear disarmament. In fact, one might think that Obama’s famous speech in Prague’s Hradcany Square in April 2009, and his disarmament-anticipatory Nobel Peace Prize, had never occurred.
President Obama’s pride in his “restart” of relations with Russia don’t seem to have meant or brought much of anything beyond getting a new arms treaty – negotiations over which, one should remember, were begun by George W. Bush in 2006. Nevertheless, “New START” really is a new agreement, and the president unsurprisingly lauds it. Indeed, it is pretty much the only concrete thing he has to offer as the smoke clears from his early emphasis upon nuclear disarmament atmospherics. (His officials have tried to explain to their disarmament-friendly political base how his program of spending more money to modernize America’s nuclear weapons production infrastructure actually supports nuclear disarmament, but although this argument is by no means crazy, that audience isn’t buying it.)
Obama also, however, characteristically oversells the new nuclear deal, and its distinctiveness. Like a proud parent, the president declared in his address that as a result of “New START,” “far fewer nuclear weapons and launchers will be deployed.” That’s far from the case, but it wouldn’t have sounded very impressive – under the circumstances – to proclaim merely that it is probably the case that some fewer nuclear weapons and launchers will be deployed, and that the Treaty will not in itself reduce the number of nuclear weapons in existence. (In fact, “New START” only puts limits on “deployed” nuclear weapons – leaving both parties free to possess as many non-deployed devices as they see fit – and its counting rules permit enormous flexibility to upload strategic bombers with multiple weapons, even to levels beyond the limit of 1,550 deployed weapons officially set by the Treaty.)
The remarkable modesty of the “New START” accomplishment is not necessarily a drawback, mind you, but it’s a bit surprising to hear it lauded as such a big deal by the man given the Peace Prize for his promises of nuclear weapons abolition. We see here, perhaps, the narcissism of small differences: with so little to boast of that is distinctively his in the national security realm, Barack Obama beats the “New START” drum loudly. Nevertheless, just about the only thing about “New START” that one would not have seen had the Bush Administration concluded this agreement is its non-binding preambular language on missile defense and its counting rule forcing one-for-one tradeoffs between nuclear delivery platforms and conventionally-armed long-range “prompt strike” systems. Are these what President Obama wishes us to remember as the distinctive accomplishments of his new agreement? Go figure.
All in all, this is pretty thin gruel for a “transformative” president whose administration bragged that by rejecting the approaches of the Bush years, it would finally solve the world’s problems, including nuclear proliferation, by conciliatory diplomatic engagement and “soft power.” The real national security and foreign policy story of the 2011 State of the Union address would thus seem to be that President Obama just doesn’t have much to crow about – and that many of the things for which he now claims credit illustrate his on-the-job retreat from the novelty and distinctiveness he promised his supporters.
Well, I guess that’s a change that some of us can believe in.
Christopher A. Ford was formerly Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Technology and Global Security at Hudson Institute.
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