Mr. Obama pivoted in his 2015 SOTU speech to some of the most weighty foreign policy matters by stating,
“I believe in a smarter kind of American leadership. We lead best when we combine military power with strong diplomacy; when we leverage our power with coalition building; when we don’t let our fears blind us to the opportunities that this new century presents. That’s exactly what we’re doing right now – and around the globe, it is making a difference.”
While it is without question that the combination of military power and strong diplomacy are the top tools with regard to foreign policy, currently there remains a vacuum of U.S. leadership in key regions in the world. The Obama Administration has left key allies and partners confused about when and under what conditions the United States will exercise power: either diplomatic or military. The “red line” in Syria was the first of many cracks in global perception of U.S. resolve and commitment. (The Syrian example requires a fuller discussion in a separate blog post at another time.)
To be clear, U.S. leadership is distinct from western exploitation. The Middle East does not seek U.S. imperialism. But the Middle East does want to be assured that the United States is a leader with a coherent strategy. An observable strategy is what all actors in the Middle East are seeking from the United States. In the absence of what is perceived as reliable U.S. partnership, the world has watched as both the Saudi’s and the Israeli’s have progressively evolved their own strategy for events in their region. As President Obama has presented a United States that is unwilling to be interventionist, an advisable stance, his mistake has been to allow the perception of a “laissez faire” policy at crucial moments rather than coming across as savvy, which is how the Administration perceives itself. The result has been a tension in the region is exponentially elevated due to uncertainty about Mr. Obama’s position on a range of issues.
The oft-repeated phrase “The United States cannot be the world’s policeman” has now been extrapolated by the Obama Administration to mean “hands off” and “let events take their course”, which has resulted in a series of missteps in Egypt, Turkey, Russia, Ukraine, and Syria. The better tact would be for more robust U.S. engagement; visible enough to leverage forward progress, to urge governments to move down the path of democratic reforms, and able to use aid packages as bargaining chips so as to wrest agreements from powerful actors. Such measures have by and large been absent in the tool chest of the United States under President Obama. Therefore we see a wariness in the Middle East from the Saudi’s, from Israel, from the GCC, and at times, even from the Jordanians.
I have stated previously in other articles, the job of PRESIDENT is a far cry from community organizing. The use of force for a greater good is leadership the world expects from the United States. The avoidance of taking action or making a decision under the guise that America is leading “smarter” is not a realistic policy. There are times when a powerful actor must take a stand against a destructive and dangerous transnational actor. Letting such actors go unchallenged only encourages their expansion, such as we have witnessed in the land grab under the black flag of ISIS/ISIL. To be clear, the U.S. could not have annihilated the leadership core of ISIS/ISIL in early 2014. But U.S. action at a time when the leadership of ISIS/ISIL was finding its footing would have curtailed the headwinds of terrorism that are now blowing as the Syrian/Iraq border disappears. Likewise, pportunities to knit together a coalition against ISIS/ISIL in 2014 were wasted and allies have grown sour on future partnerships with the Obama team. Unfortunately, leaders in the Middle East have now turned their attention to the successor to Mr. Obama, in other words the 2016 election.
Mr. Obama’s faulty inability to exercise positive engagement and/or prudent use of force is the result of his understandable reluctance for further use of the U.S. military. After over a decade of war in Afghanistan and the debacle of Iraq, his caution is justified. Justified, but it should not be so solidified that he fails to listen to analysis that obviates the consequences of non-action.
Mr. Obama failed in not sending a high profile representative to the Paris in the aftermath of the tragic AQAP inspired terrorist attacks. This non-action signaled to the Europeans a message that failed to strengthen the visible partnership of allies as terrorists watched attentively. What is indicated is that this administration does not understand the importance of providing moments that telescope a clear message of where the United States stands on issues. The optics from this Administration are negligible and the consequences of this oversight continues to weaken perception of exactly what the strategy of this President is, in the trenches and outside of the speeches.
As for the reference of ISIL/ISIS, there are clouds on the horizon for containing this terrorist group. The competition between ISIS/ISIL and Al Qaeda may result in the uptick of a variety of both small and large-scale attacks. The President in the SOTU speech ringed an unrealistic tone as the menacing threat presented by ISIS/ISIL remains one of the central challenges, not just for the United States, but for the world. The role of the President is to assure the people that the nation is strong, and in my comments about the overall presentation I praised him for confidence. But the reality remains that these threats will continue to be a scourge in the world, and a threat to western citizens.
The President mentioned the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan but the future of Afghanistan remains a very mixed view. The U.S. -Afghanistan bilateral security agreement (BSA) will be in effect until the end of 2024″and beyond”. In the current environment of ISIS/ISIL’s territorial expansion, expansion that has conditionally altered the borders between Syria and Iraq, there are those in Afghanistan who will see ISIS/ISIL as a model for taking territory within the Afghanistan region. The presence of U.S. officials and advisers will complicate the conditions of the BSA if the Taliban and or ISIS/ISIL achieve a sustained increase in power. Another potential regional threat could come from Iran if it finds itself surrounded by Sunni terrorists on both its western and eastern borders.
Lastly, the dark clouds over Ukraine present a long-term problem in geopolitical power. Once again, President Obama seems unable to link together the importance of the optics when it came to a decision about sending a high level official to Paris. Letting our EU allies know that we stand with them, not because continental borders necessitate cooperation. But because the shared democratic values ensure an enduring partnership between the EU nations, Britain, the U.S. and all other nations who endeavor to move in the direction of democracy. While Ukraine battles with a separatist movement, the EU faces pressure to uphold sanctions in the midst of hydrocarbon dependance resources from Russia. Only if the U.S. maintains a steady relationship with all EU nations, only when there is a consolidation of leaders who hold to condemnation of Russia’s actions in Crimea and Ukraine will the global community have a clear sense of where the U.S. and its partners stand. When the U.S. is unclear, inconsistent, and fails to get the optics correct, other strong actors will step in to the vacuum.
On foreign policy, the President painted a picture for the American audience that asked nothing of the public. Rather than framing the issues related to foreign policy as matters that require ongoing monitoring and help from the public, too rosy of a presentation was given in the SOTU address. And while the American public has reason to feel optimistic in light of the encouraging economic signs, the President has a responsibility to educate, to create a culture of shared security. The terrorists thrive on a culture of fear and reaction. As the United States counter terrorism agencies remain vigilant to prevent a Paris type attack, the President should have asked for the participation of the public with regard to homegrown terrorism.
The President did not ask for ongoing vigilance during his speech. As leader of the nation, his key responsibility is to not frighten the public but instead equip the nation to remain strong in the midst of threats that are not “over there”, but instead are a very real part of what the United States contends with on a daily basis. In a globalized world there is no longer “over there”. That was the primary lesson that American learned on 9/11. The President would have been better advised to bring in the events in Paris as a tool for instructing the public that all citizens must work together and take equal responsibility for protecting our communities. Such a message would have been practical, exercised with good foresight, and beneficial for all. While the SOTU address is a report on the condition of the nation, the foreign policy issues are integral to the security of the nation.
How Did The President Do?
The speech was a good speech. The President projected confidence and optimism. The United States has begun to reposition itself after the financial crisis begun in fall 2008. There is much for the Obama Administration to set forth in its 2015/2016 agenda. Still, Mr. Obama is the leader of the world’s remaining superpower and the opportunity to guide the American public, not through fear, but instead as a point of leadership, in understanding the enduring role the U.S. plays in the post-9/11 world. The state of the union is necessarily and unavoidably linked with events in the world and HOW the president strategizes, contends with, and leverages the power of the United States will, in some part, determine the overall strength of the nation.
The point is, help the American public see the world the way it is, not the way it used to be nor from a mindset that says it “should” be like….. The world is a different landscape in the 21st century. It is time that U.S.leaders begin to use their speeches so that understanding the world does not mean one is less “American”. A 20th century style of nationalist sentiment will not serve the nation going forward. Leaders must frame their opportunities to speak to the public as moments that will allow citizens to feel deeply “American” and loyal to their nation while at the same time helping them to come to terms with the realities of just how interconnected geopolitics are and how interdependent economies are, and how the luxury of an isolationist policy is no longer viable as threats such as ISIL/ISIS and AQ and cyber security and plummeting oil prices affect all peoples, every where around the globe. The SOTU address cannot accomplish all that in a 75 minute speech, but this speech could have provided a more realistic view of foreign policy and the world in 2015.