daniel.d.slee (CC BY-NC 2.0)

This post originally ran on Juan Cole’s Web page.

President Obama’s State of the Union address addressed some key foreign policy issues–Afghanistan and Iran above all– though it was primarily aimed at domestic issues, and mainly at those where executive orders and policy might make at least a marginal impact.

Opinion polls show that US public support for the Afghanistan War, which began 12 and a half years ago, has fallen to 17 percent. Americans want out of that country. Obama pointed out that “When I took office, nearly 180,000 Americans were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.” He observed that all US troops are out of Iraq now, and he has brought 60,000 troops home from Afghanistan. (What he didn’t say was that he had sent 60,000 extra ones there early in his first term, so unlike with Iraq he is now drawing down his own war). There are still 39,000 or so US military personnel in Afghanistan.

About Afghanistan, Obama said, “Together with our allies, we will complete our mission there by the end of this year, and America’s longest war will finally be over.” This way of putting it is a little disingenuous. What the president means is that US forces won’t be doing active war-fighting and taking the lead in it after December.

He went on to clarify that “If the Afghan government signs a security agreement that we have negotiated, a small force of Americans could remain in Afghanistan with NATO allies to carry out two narrow missions: training and assisting Afghan forces, and counterterrorism operations to pursue any remnants of al Qaeda.”

This paragraph is like an iceberg, with 90% of the meaning not visible. First of all, Obama is implicitly acknowledging that Afghanistan may not sign a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the US. The current president, Hamid Karzai, is declining to sign the agreement. His successor may not be elected, after run-offs, until summer of 2014. By the time a new president gets settled and studies the issue, the point may be moot. The US military will have to assume it is not staying, and initiate a vast movement of human beings and materiel out of the country. The US may end up with no troops in Afghanistan just because no one could get around to finalizing a SOFA before the clock ran out.

It isn’t even clear if the SOFA will need parliamentary approval, or if so, whether a majority of the Afghanistan parliament wants thousands of US troops to remain.

Karzai himself is increasingly unstable but may remain a power behind the new president, on the model of Vladimir Putin in Russia when he let Medvedev become president and made himself prime minister. Karzai most recently is accusing the United States of secretly being behind major terrorist attacks in Afghanistan, including the recent bombing of a Lebanese restaurant in Kabul. The US ambassador wondered if Karzai was using the allegations to keep the US off balance. But no, I think he is just as looney as the day is long and quite paranoid.

As for al-Qaeda, it has no purchase to speak of in Afghanistan. There is some danger of a major Taliban resurgence if the US departs altogether, but if a decade of building an Afghanistan national army and two decades of Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek opposition to the Taliban can’t forestall another fall of Kabul to extremists, it is hard to argue that another five years of US presence would make a difference to that outcome.

Obama acknowledged what many of his critics have been asserting, that “While we put al Qaeda’s core leadership on a path to defeat, the threat has evolved as al Qaeda affiliates and other extremists take root in different parts of the world. In Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Mali, we have to keep working with partners to disrupt and disable those networks.”

Obama would have been more straightforward if he had mentioned the word “drones” here (he gets to it later) or if he had admitted that Sunni extremists have taken over Falluja and much of Ramadi in Iraq. Many Yemen experts believe his drone strikes there have actually caused al-Qaeda to grow, since civilians have been killed and people have been radicalized. Obama later said that he had “limited” drone strikes because of this danger. But it isn’t clear what the limitation is. A few weeks ago a US drone took out a wedding party in Yemen.

He added, “In Syria, we’ll support the opposition that rejects the agenda of terrorist networks.”

To toss off a single sentence about Syria in this speech was unfortunate, especially since the sentence isn’t practical. Something like 75% of the liberated territory in northern Syria is held by Sunni extremists, what Obama is calling al-Qaeda affiliates. The “moderate” Free Syrian Army (which has all along been at least 40% Muslim Brotherhood) has been the least effective fighting force. There is no prospect of the US turning that situation around any time soon.

He correctly added about Syria that “American diplomacy, backed by the threat of force, is why Syria’s chemical weapons are being eliminated.” This course was far preferable to bombing Syria last fall, which would have accomplished almost nothing but to create more enmity to the US.

Most of what he said about Syria serves to cover up the ambiguities of that country, where a brutal regime that has killed and tortured thousands is fighting guerrillas, many of whom have declared for al-Qaeda. There isn’t much to choose from here for the US, and for Obama to daydream in public about a military victory of moderates is a little sad. It certainly is no strategy. Obama reiterated his general dislike of big Bush-style wars” “We must fight the battles that need to be fought, not those that terrorists prefer from us — large-scale deployments that drain our strength and may ultimately feed extremism.”

He called again for Congress to let him close the Guantanamo Bay prison (it passed a law forbidding the US of government funds for the closing).

Obama looked appreciatively at Secretary of State John Kerry when he praised American diplomacy’s promotion of talks between the Israelis and Palestinians. He said the talks were launched “to achieve dignity and an independent state for Palestinians, and lasting peace and security for the State of Israel — a Jewish state that knows America will always be at their side..”

There was no applause at the mention of an independent state for Palestinians. But when Obama capitulated to Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu and called Israel “a Jewish state,” almost everyone on the floor, whether Republican or Democrat– were on their feet applauding. And some people say they don’t think AIPAC is powerful.

Obama defended his negotiations with Iran and pledged to veto any bill sent him by Congress that might derail the negotiations with Tehran.

It is sad that Obama felt constrained to issue this veto threat against a Senate-crafted bill that is being promoted by pro-Israel senators at the risk of sinking the negotiations and so leaving only war as an option for dealing with Iran. The reason for his veto threat, however, is that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has been disciplining senators and congressmen and attempting to outflank Obama in his own city and even in his own party. So far, AIPAC has failed to stop the Iran initiative, but not for lack of trying. Among its victims have been Jewish Americans in the legislature, including Deborah Wasserman-Shultz (D-FL), the deputy Democratic whip, who has been working to support Obama’s Iran diplomacy. Since AIPAC toes the Likud line, they have attacked her as disloyal.

It isn’t actually clear, that Obama is right the severe US sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table. It seems to have rather been that pragmatist Hasan Rouhani won a power struggle with his rivals.

Then Obama did the bravest thing in the speech, he took on AIPAC. “But let me be clear: If this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it. For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed.”

Obama admitted his negotiations could fail, and that new sanctions might be warranted in that case. He added, “But if Iran’s leaders do seize the chance — and we’ll know soon enough — then Iran could take an important step to rejoin the community of nations, and we will have resolved one of the leading security challenges of our time without the risks of war.”

And that seems the keynote of Obama’s speech, the turn from war to diplomacy. He clearly sees himself as a transitional figure. Ironically, in many ways he is still mainly defined by the Bush administration, inasmuch as his accomplishments are winding down the Bush wars and defusing mines laid by Bush-Cheney that might still go off and drag us into more wars. In past speeches, Obama has even justified his drone strikes on the grounds that they are superior to conventional military engagements. (This argument however rests on the false premise that there are only two possible positions, pro-drone or pro-conventional war.)

Although he ended with a line that might have been taken from Bush’s democracy promotion strategy, his was merely rhetorical whereas Bush liked putting boots on the ground abroad. “From Tunisia to Burma, we’re supporting those who are willing to do the hard work of building democracy. In Ukraine, we stand for the principle that all people have the right to express themselves freely and peacefully, and to have a say in their country’s future.”

I actually can’t think of anything Obama did for Tunisia after its 2011 revolution. In fact after Sept. 2012 when the US embassy was attacked by Salafis, he left a skeleton crew in Tunis. I don’t think they are able to get out much or to accomplish much. In the end, Obama seems to see himself as primarily a domestic president. That position is remarkable because the Tea Party Congress won’t actually let him do much domestically. Many presidents seek foreign policy breakthroughs instead in their second term. Although Obama’s Iran talks may do some of that work, he doesn’t seem very confident of their success or terribly invested in them. He has never understood that Jimmy Carter got the Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel by putting his presidency on the line and investing himself in the effort 100%. There isn’t any foreign policy issue about which you could assert that of Obama.

President Obama has never seemed to me all that interested in foreign affairs. His withdrawal from Iraq was provoked by the refusal of the Iraqi parliament to let US troops remain there. His Afghanistan policy was set by the Pentagon and both Vali Nasr and Bob Gates have wondered whether he was committed to the troop escalation imposed on him by the generals. He seems pretty happy at the prospect of getting out. He was briefly willing to bomb Syria but also seems very happy the Russians offered him a way out. He intervened in Libya but has done almost nothing for the elected Libyan government to help it strengthen its capacities. He praised Tunisia’s democratic transition but had little to do with it. The best you could say is that he hasn’t started any illegal wars, and has attempted to take the US off a war footing.

It is ironic that Obama is so disliked by peaceniks and on the left of his own party. As he points out, his policies have aimed at winding down wars and returning the US to peace. He cannot see the dangers of his undeclared drone wars, however. And while he praised the strength of the US relationship with Europe, he should have acknowledged that NSA spying has enraged our allies. He says the right things about conventional uses of the military, but in his actions he is a Covert War hawk.

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