The state of US foreign policy

Members of the military Joint Chiefs of Staff listen as US President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in Washington on Jan. 12, 2016.

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US President Barack Obama delivered his final State of the Union speech last night. The president used it to recap his presidency and lay out a vision — if not an actual plan — for the future.

It wasn’t the usual State of the Union. It was very short on concrete policy initiatives. Typically these speeches are used to list all the things that a president plans to do in the next year, which can get tedious. But there was very little of that. Instead, the president gave broad indictments of the current American political system and spoke about some major themes the United States must work toward addressing.

It was still pretty tedious.

The speech was light on foreign policy and other global issues. The president highlighted some of his global achievements, all of them diplomatic. It’s actually a pretty impressive list.

He mentioned his work forging a deal to dismantle Iran’s nuclear program, which has the potential to change everything in the Middle East region. Some Republicans criticized Obama for not mentioning the 10 sailors that were detained by Iran yesterday when they drifted into Iranian waters. But they've already been released.

He mentioned his unraveling of a half-century of hostility when he normalized ties with Cuba. It was a historic diplomatic move that cast away all the distrust and fear and rhetoric in favor of a future where the two countries work and play together as neighbors. It is hard to find fault in that.

He talked about his role in pressing for a global climate treaty in Paris to combat climate change. That was also hugely historic, and possibly world-changing. For decades the United States had been one of a few countries — China, for example — that stood in the way of a global pact to save the world from a warming climate. That changed during Obama’s presidency. And now we have a deal. It could be a stronger deal, but it’s much-needed progress all the same.

Finally, he mentioned his leadership in halting the spread of Ebola, which most Americans at this point forget was even a thing.

As for the future, however, Obama did not have much to say. He talked a bit about wanting to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is deeply unpopular among many Democrats and liberals. But he said the agreement (which is actually another example of impressive worldwide diplomacy) would “open markets, protect workers and the environment, and advance American leadership in Asia.” Not everyone is so sure about all that, though.


Obama didn’t mention the bombings in Istanbul yesterday. Or the attacks in Baghdad the day before. He didn’t even mention the Syrian refugee that was sitting with the First Lady. Actually, he didn’t even mention the First Lady.

The president didn’t offer any new policies or strategies in the fight against the Islamic State, instability in the Middle East, and other lingering global conflicts, like, say, Afghanistan. Afghanistan is a war he vowed to end when he ran for president. Seven years later US troops remain and the Taliban is resurgent.

He did try to dial back the rhetoric surrounding the threats posed by the Islamic State, the conflict in Syria, and the refugee crisis. He made the case that while terrorism is a threat to the United States, it isn’t an existential threat.

"As we focus on destroying ISIL, over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands," he said. "Masses of fighters on the back of pickup trucks and twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages pose an enormous danger to civilians and must be stopped. But they do not threaten our national existence. That’s the story ISIL wants to tell; that’s the kind of propaganda they use to recruit."

In one of the clearest attacks on Republicans (during a speech that was largely about how to heal the political divisions in Washington), Obama said the answer to the Islamic State needs to be more than just “tough talk and calls to carpet bomb civilians.” That was a reference to a Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz, a senator who didn’t even attend the speech.

Obama’s strategy of limiting the military response to airstrikes and arming local militias, however, has not exactly turned out to be the military success that he surely hoped it would be. After more than a year of airstrikes, the Islamic State still controls large parts of both Syria and Iraq. And it is quickly moving into Libya, Afghanistan and elsewhere.


The fact checkers report this morning that Obama’s speech was mostly truthful. But there was one statement he made that was entirely false. He said the conflicts in the Middle East date back “millennia.”

That just isn’t true. And it perpetuates the offensive myth that this is how the region has always been. Many of the conflicts in the Middle East right now are rooted in the actions of the British and French colonial empires as they collapsed in the middle of last century.

Islamic terrorism, meanwhile, is a modern phenomenon. It is mostly rooted in modern politics, not an ancient religion, arising out of the brutality of Arab-Israeli wars, four decades of war in Afghanistan, and the chaos following the US-led invasion of Iraq.

It was only one word in a nearly 5,500-word speech. But it was a significant one.

Note: This article has been edited to clarify the historic roots of present-day sectarian conflict in the Middle East.