President Obama relegated the foreign policy section of his first State of the Union address to the fourth quarter of the speech. There were some worthwhile elements – he made a strong statement about his commitment to fighting “terrorists who threaten our nation.” However, on both Afghanistan and Iraq, issues where the president has shown some fortitude, he portrayed both as wars he is in the process of ending.
The bulk of his six or so paragraphs on foreign policy and national security was focused on the foreign policy agenda item he is perhaps most passionate about – nuclear disarmament. He tried to argue that his efforts to negotiate a new arms control agreement with Russia may somehow help lure North Korea back into the nuclear nonproliferation regime and keep Iran from breaking out of it. This is, of course, mere fantasy, but his actions on these nuclear challenges this year will perhaps shape the success or failure of the Obama administration’s foreign policy record just as much as what happens in Afghanistan.
While it is understandable that given the state of the economy and lingering recession, most Americans are perhaps more focused on their job security than about what is happening in Kabul, Tehran, or Pyongyang, it is troubling that this president does not seem to have a clear agenda on these issues other than a retro-80s approach to twenty-first century challenges. If the Christmas Day bomber, growing concern about Yemen, instability in Iran, continued uncertainty about nuclear Pakistan, and the difficult months (and years) ahead in Afghanistan are any indication, 2010 will be just as consequential for U.S. foreign policy as any year in recent memory with the exception of 2001.
President Obama came into office with a foreign policy agenda that was essentially limited to expressing concern about nuclear weapons and showing the world that he was not George W. Bush. He has now done the latter through speech after speech in Istanbul, Accra, Cairo, to cite just a few of the exotic venues. Despite focusing on the former with his “reset” of the U.S.-Russian relationship, the foreign policy challenges he faced during 2009 were largely thrust upon him by events. Despite several courageous decisions as commander in chief, he was clearly uncomfortable (witness the Afghanistan Strategy Review) with the issue set he was forced to focus on during year one.
In this very political White House, foreign policy is viewed through the lens of mid-term elections in 2010 and the president’s reelection in 2012, just like any other issue. Thus, it is important for Team Obama to act tough on security and kill terrorists (preferably using classified means), but most other foreign policy issues become time consuming obstacles to the pursuit of a robust domestic agenda. This is foreign policy as a political tactic, not as a grand strategy or a coherent formulation of America’s global interests (with the exception of a headlong rush for disarmament).
Despite the challenges the country faces on the domestic front, it would behoove the president in 2010 to do what he failed to do last night -- speak more frequently to the American people about what is at stake overseas and what his vision is for keeping Americans safe and advancing U.S. interests around the world. Otherwise, he risks being nothing more than a reactionary president doing little more than what is required to avoid the wrath of the electorate. He runs the risk of becoming an inconsequential commander in chief in very consequential times.