By Barry Rubin
In his State of the Union message, President Barack Obama began by wrapping himself in the flag, patriotism, and love of the armed forces while trying to highlight his foreign policy achievements. Among his points:
“The United States [is] safer and more respected around the world.”
Presumably, a lot of Americans will believe this. The United States may be said to be safer in terms of facing direct terror attacks but that was basically true in 2002. As for “more respected”—a phrase no doubt chosen to seem more statesmanlike than saying “more popular”–that is a joke. If there’s one thing that should be obvious (and this is often revealed even by international public opinion polls) it is that the United States is not more respected at all.
Moreover, while individual Americans may be relatively safe from terrorist attacks in their homes, neighborhoods and workplaces within the territory of the United States—a perception partly reinforced by redefining terrorist attacks as something else—U.S. interests abroad are far less safe.
“For the first time in nine years, there are no Americans fighting in Iraq.”
True, though the remaining forces may have to fight to defend themselves. This withdrawal, of course, was planned by Obama’s predecessor and Iraq is not doing so well today.
“For the first time in two decades, Osama bin Laden is not a threat to this country. Most of al Qaeda’s top lieutenants have been defeated.”
Aside from the lack of grammar here—was Obama trying to avoid saying that these people were killed?—the statement is true. The problem is that Hamas, Hizballah, the Turkish regime, Iran, Syria, and the Muslim Brotherhood add up to a far bigger threat, a problem magnified by Obama refusing to acknowledge they are a threat.
“The Taliban’s momentum has been broken, and some troops in Afghanistan have begun to come home.”
While the latter point about withdrawal is true, the Taliban is still quite strong. It would be quite possible for the Taliban to return to power within five years.
Then Obama rearranges history—quite obviously though no one in the mass media will point this out:
“Ending the Iraq war has allowed us to strike decisive blows against our enemies. From Pakistan to Yemen, the al Qaeda operatives who remain are scrambling, knowing that they can’t escape the reach of the United States of America.”
In fact, of course, the successes against al-Qaeda were obviously achieved before the withdrawal. Are al-Qaeda operatives trembling in fear before the might of America? Of course not. And in both Pakistan and Yemen (one should add Somalia) they are doing quite well. Obama could have done better by referring to the defeat of al-Qaeda as being part of the American “victory” in Iraq.
“From this position of strength, we’ve begun to wind down the war in Afghanistan. Ten thousand of our troops have come home. Twenty-three thousand more will leave by the end of this summer. This transition to Afghan lead will continue, and we will build an enduring partnership with Afghanistan, so that it is never again a source of attacks against America.”
Again, Obama tells an unnecessary lie. The withdrawal from Iraq is a correct move but hardly puts the United States in a position of strength, especially given Obama’s deep cuts on the military. And of course the end of the war in Afghanistan was planned long before any withdrawal in Iraq; indeed it was basically planned during his predecessor’s term.
As for an “enduring partnership with Afghanistan,” that’s the kind of statement bound to come back to haunt Obama. Afghanistan remains unstable, its government is angry with Obama, and the tide may well turn there after a U.S. withdrawal.
Next, Obama turns to the Arab Spring. He refers to his success in Libya:
“A year ago, Qadhafi was one of the world’s longest-serving dictators – a murderer with American blood on his hands. Today, he is gone.”
True, but what will replace him?
“And in Syria, I have no doubt that the Assad regime will soon discover that the forces of change can’t be reversed, and that human dignity can’t be denied.”
In fact, for two and a half years, Obama strongly backed—in contrast to predecessors—that regime which denied “human dignity.” And he’s doing very little to help that transformation now.
My number-one complaint about Obama—not that there aren’t others but this is in first place—is that he never hints at the dangers in the region precisely because he doesn’t recognize that they exist.
And, in total contrast to his actual policy, he gives lip service to doing something productive:
“While it is ultimately up to the people of the region to decide their fate, we will advocate for those values that have served our own country so well. We will stand against violence and intimidation. We will stand for the rights and dignity of all human beings – men and women; Christians, Muslims, and Jews. We will support policies that lead to strong and stable democracies and open markets, because tyranny is no match for liberty.”
In fact, though, Obama has basically ignored the “violence and intimidation” against Israel; the people of the Gaza Strip; the Turkish people; the Iranian people; the tyranny taking shape in Lebanon; the Christians in Iraq and Syria; and elsewhere.
How can “tyranny” be “no match for liberty” when U.S. policy is largely on the side of tyranny, indeed a tyranny of a worse kind that has previously prevailed in Egypt, the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, and Turkey?
When it comes to U.S. security interests, Obama can only talk about Iran, where he claims success:
“Through the power of our diplomacy, a world that was once divided about how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program now stands as one. The regime is more isolated than ever before; its leaders are faced with crippling sanctions, and as long as they shirk their responsibilities, this pressure will not relent.”
Nice. But Iran is still advancing in its nuclear program and its influence in Lebanon and Iraq increases while Tehran adequately defends its interests in Syria. If the State Department had not restrained Obama, he would also have handed Iran a victory in Bahrain.
On nuclear weapons, Obama repeats the standard line:
“America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal. But a peaceful resolution of this issue is still possible, and far better, and if Iran changes course and meets its obligations, it can rejoin the community of nations.”
And if it doesn’t? Yes, it is quite true that Obama led a move to tougher sanctions on Iran but he did so only by excluding Russia, Turkey, and China from compliance. I would argue that the same result could have been achieved far earlier than Obama did it.
Here is the worst sentence of the speech: “The renewal of American leadership can be felt across the globe.” It is precisely the lack of American leadership that is being felt.
“Our oldest alliances in Europe and Asia are stronger than ever.” Really? The South Koreans would probably agree but generally the alliances are not stronger than ever but about as weak as they have ever been.
“Our ties to the Americas are deeper.” Actually, Latin American leaders are very unhappy, feeling that Obama has coddled the Chavez dictatorship while ignoring them.
“Our iron-clad commitment to Israel’s security has meant the closest military cooperation between our two countries in history.”
This is a carefully constructed sentence which I find makes me even more suspicious about Obama’s commitment toward Israel. Why? Because it is true that the bilateral military cooperation is as good as it has ever been. But all other areas of relations are terrible. This sentence tells me that Obama understands that and wants to accentuate the positive without doing anything to improve the negative. He thinks U.S.-Israel relations are good enough and will not—even if, or especially if, elected to a second term–make any effort to improve relations with Israel or U.S. support for that country. After all, he thinks that the relationship is perfect right now.
Another point to notice is Obama’s failure to mention—much less highlight—the Israel-Palestinian “peace process.” They’ve given up on that one, at least for 2012.
And then he concludes with this statement, remarkable for being so directly opposite to the truth:
“America is back. Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”
Wow, first, America is not back because Obama has reduced U.S. influence, leverage, and activism. Second, who has done more than Obama to assert that U.S. power is in decline? And, third, this fact is totally obvious to leaders in Latin America, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Obama, however, is always one for doubling down on his lies or errors. (You choose the word you prefer.):
“That’s not the message we get from leaders around the world, all of whom are eager to work with us. That’s not how people feel from Tokyo to Berlin; from Capetown to Rio; where opinions of America are higher than they’ve been in years.”
The truth is generally the exact opposite and even in the polls one can see this. Obama can be daring because he knows the media won’t bash him for saying stuff like this.
There’s something else I find fascinating and generally ignored about this speech. All presidents, of course, want to put the accent on the positive. But with Obama I don’t see any real consideration of threats and problems. Yes, he mentions al-Qaida and the Taliban (no longer a problem, he says) and Iran (under control and they will be pressed into making a deal), and democratic transitions (we don’t know what will happen but…).
Nevertheless, America faces no real threats or enemies. revolutionary Islamism doesn’t exist as an issue; Russia poses no problem; Chavez and Castro and various other dictators are vanished; even underdevelopment or instability aren’t mentioned. There is a Pollyanna aspect to Obama arising from his belief that everything would be okay as long as America behaves properly and he is president. In his world there are no real conflicts; few true enemies but only misunderstandings. With Obama the problem is not merely his politics and views but also his total lack of true understanding about international affairs, security issues, and strategy.
Governor Mitch Daniels gave the Republican response and stuck completely to domestic economic issues, which was after all Obama’s main theme. Yet international affairs was the only other theme and if Obama’s critics can’t do a better job of analyzing his claims, responding to his policies, and offering an alternative to his strategies he is more likely to remain president for five more years.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His book, Israel: An Introduction, will be published by Yale University Press in January. Latest books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at http://www.gloria-center.org and of his blog, Rubin Reports, http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com