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State of the Union: 4 Takes on Afghanistan, Syria, President’s Style

President Obama’s remarks about foreign policy begin at 38:40 in the above recording of his State of the Union speech.

Along with urging action on guns and jobs, President Obama touched on some foreign policy points, including the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, nuclear threats from North Korea and Iran, and a redoubling of cyber-security efforts, in his State of the Union speech.

We asked four foreign policy analysts whose specialties range from Afghanistan to nonproliferation to give us their takes:

Andrew Wilder

Director of Afghanistan and Pakistan Programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace

Last night, President Obama was speaking to the American people in his State of the Union address, and I’m sure the vast majority were pleased to hear that 34,000 more troops would be brought home during the next year, and that “by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over.”

However, few Afghans believe their war will have ended by the end of next year, and indeed fear that the departure of foreign troops could lead to state collapse and a return to the devastating civil war and anarchy of the 1990s that gave birth to the Taliban. Afghans will be worried that the president’s speech focused on U.S. troops leaving Afghanistan, and said nothing about how many will be staying beyond 2014.

It is now more important than ever for the international community led by the U.S. to communicate that they will not once again abandon Afghanistan. Fear and uncertainty about what will happen when troops leave could lead to destabilizing hedging behavior, including rearmament by political and ethnic factions that fear a return to civil war.

It was, therefore, good that President Obama mentioned that the United States’ commitment “to a unified and sovereign Afghanistan will endure,” and referenced the negotiations for a bilateral security agreement to determine the nature of the United States’ post-2014 military role in Afghanistan.

However, the decision on how many troops will be withdrawn needs to be followed soon with some clarity that a relatively robust number will remain beyond 2014. This will be the most convincing demonstration to Afghans that the U.S. is indeed not abandoning Afghanistan, and will be the best way to protect U.S. interests of not letting Afghanistan once again become an anarchic environment that destabilizes the region and could once again become a safe haven for transnational terrorist groups.

Joshua Landis

Associate professor and director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma

Anyone who was hoping that President Obama would follow a more muscular policy on Syria during his second term was disappointed. Obama believes that previous presidents have over-committed the United States in the Middle East. He is trying to draw down troops in Afghanistan, stay out of Iraq, finesse demands that he solve the Arab-Israeli conflict, and do everything possible not to get sucked into Syria. The potential for mission-creep in Syria is enormous as the country slips into civil war and the opposition splinters into emulous factionalism and becomes dominated by Islamists.

From earlier interviews on 60 minutes and with the New Republic, President Obama made it clear that he does not believe that saving Syria is America’s responsibility, or even within the capability of the U.S. His non-committal and anodyne statement in the State of the Union address that the U.S. would “stand with citizens as they demand their universal rights and support stable transitions to democracy,” could not be read as a battle cry or promise of greater U.S. involvement.

Sharon Squassoni

Director and senior fellow, Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies

There was nothing new on nonproliferation in this State of the Union, but that’s appropriate given the turmoil that has enveloped us in so many domestic issues. I think we’ll have to wait for a major foreign and/or security policy speech to see whether the next four years will have more than a “stay the course” approach to reducing nuclear threats. I would hope that a future speech outlining his vision could include some innovative thinking on arms control beyond bilateral reductions with Russia and a more critical posture on missile defenses.

David Mislan

Assistant professor at American University’s School of International Service

The president’s speech was, like so many before it, an outline of his agenda. What stood out to me was the consistently populist theme. Obama framed his policies in terms of how they would benefit the American people and, more often than not, the middle class. He coupled this populism with a global outlook.

  • Obama described current U.S. counterterrorism policy as sending American sons and daughters abroad to occupy a foreign country, which doesn’t resonate with the average American. He said that he intends to replace that strategy with a more flexible and multilateral one that depends more on allies and, although he didn’t mention them by name, drone strikes.
  • The president framed economic policies with the effect they will have on typical Americans. Policies that he claims will enhance U.S. competitiveness globally will bring back jobs previously lost to East Asia and Latin America, to the benefit of Americans currently seeking work.
  • Education reform was cast as necessary for Americans as they compete with workers in foreign countries for a better future. Obama cited Germany’s emphasis on vocational training in Germany, inferring that it was a model we must emulate in order to compete globally and to put Americans back to work.
  • Even the president’s call for a raise in the minimum wage was framed as one that was necessary due to America’s global standing.

Not all of his policy initiatives were clearly framed in populist terms, however. I think that the president missed an opportunity to win support for his climate change agenda by failing to explain how it would benefit the average voter. His preference for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and a new trade agreement with the European Union are difficult cast as moves that would benefit the middle class by boosting U.S. exports, if prior free-trade agreements are any indicator.

Towards the end of his speech, the president departed from his populist framing of U.S. foreign policy and moved towards a more Wilsonian view. His mention of U.S. policy towards Burma and Egypt as a mission to make the world free for all people appeals to the idealists, but not to the average American who is more concerned with the practical needs of everyday life.

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