Speech was short on foreign policy thinking

The president didn't have much of substance to say on the region that will give him his worst crises

By Juan Cole
Published January 28, 2010 1:29PM (EST)

Understandably, President Obama concentrated on domestic issues, especially job creation, in his State of the Union address. But there were a few paragraphs toward the end about foreign affairs that I want to talk about. While I thought the speech generally strong, and the flash polls suggest that the public did, as well, I felt that there were significant problems with the foreign policy passages that signal trouble ahead.

In Afghanistan, we are increasing our troops and training Afghan Security Forces so they can begin to take the lead in July of 2011, and our troops can begin to come home. We will reward good governance, reduce corruption, and support the rights of all Afghans -- men and women alike. We are joined by allies and partners who have increased their own commitment, and who will come together tomorrow in London to reaffirm our common purpose. There will be difficult days ahead. But I am confident we will succeed.

This passage was one of the few lauded by Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell in the Republican response. But it is among the weaker parts of the speech.

Reserve Col. Lawrence Sellin, a Ph.D. and a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, summarized the problems with training the Afghan army:

a. The U.S. has already spent more than $17 billion since 2001 building the Afghanistan National Army, but without much success.

b. Although the government of President Hamid Karzai claims that the army numbers 100,000 now, in fact some battalions are at half strength and not combat ready. The chance that the ANA can be expanded to 240,000 effective soldiers for another $16 billion in a year or two is slim to none.

c. If a new Afghan army can be built at all, it will take at least 4 years, and it is not plausible that U.S. troops will withdraw beginning in 2011. Moreover, memos of U.S. ambassador Karl Eikenberry in Kabul insist that President Hamid Karzai is unreliable and refuses to try to take command of the country, so that he is not deploying the army he already has. The profound divisions within the Obama camp, among the most experienced Afghan hands, make it anything but certain that the counter-insurgency strategy of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, to which Obama committed himself, can succeed.

d. Veteran NBC war correspondent Richard Engel maintains that staff officers work short hours and are corrupt. Only some of the small companies of troops deployed in the countryside can effectively be said to be at war. Even these are 90 percent illiterate, and some have received only two weeks of "show and tell" training. Drug use is rampant among troops, and some 25 percent go AWOL. See Engel on the Rachel Maddow show:

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As is often the case, in this paragraph Obama was attempting to please both right and left, with a troop escalation advertised as a mere prelude to withdrawal. But the task, of training an effective 240,000-man Afghanistan National Army is an enormous one and cannot be even partially completed by summer 2011.

He then turned, more sure-footedly, to Iraq.

As we take the fight to al Qaeda, we are responsibly leaving Iraq to its people. As a candidate, I promised that I would end this war, and that is what I am doing as President. We will have all of our combat troops out of Iraq by the end of this August. We will support the Iraqi government as they hold elections, and continue to partner with the Iraqi people to promote regional peace and prosperity. But make no mistake: this war is ending, and all of our troops are coming home

Obama sees the Iraq War as irrelevant to the war on terrorism, and is putting all his military eggs in the Afghanistan basket. He is quite clear that the U.S. military is departing Iraq on the timetable worked out with the Iraqi parliament, virtually no matter what. I've noted his determination and consistency on the Iraq withdrawal elsewhere. This passage is the strongest on foreign policy, and he sent an unmistakeable message that he in my view has too seldom discussed with the American public.

Obama goes on to pledge to work on nuclear disarmament and maintains that such negotiations (mainly with Russia) will enhance U.S. credibility with the international community in dealing with North Korea and Iran

Doesn't actually sound very likely to me.

These diplomatic efforts have also strengthened our hand in dealing with those nations that insist on violating international agreements in pursuit of these weapons. That is why North Korea now faces increased isolation, and stronger sanctions -- sanctions that are being vigorously enforced. That is why the international community is more united, and the Islamic Republic of Iran is more isolated. And as Iran's leaders continue to ignore their obligations, there should be no doubt: they, too, will face growing consequences. 

Sanctions won't work on Iran to produce regme change. They can keep a country weak and harm civilians, as we saw in iraq. But they cannot dislodge a ruling elite in an oil country, because oil is too easily smuggled and converted into cash, which can then be squirreled away by the ruling party. Congress's infatuation with sanctions on Iran is highly unlikely to be productive, especially since China declines to go along with them.

Moreover, Washington's tightening of sanctions may make it harder for Obama to engage the regime in serious negotiations, as he had earlier pledged to do. This speech is essentially a capitulation to Neoconservative themes on Iran, rather than retaining Obama's central plank of keeping negotiating lines open to Tehran.

That is the leadership that we are providing – engagement that advances the common security and prosperity of all people. We are working through the G-20 to sustain a lasting global recovery. We are working with Muslim communities around the world to promote science, education and innovation.

I'm not sure what this last part, about promoting education and innovation in the Muslim world, even means, and cannot think of any practical change in U.S. development policy with regard to the Muslim world in the past year. The big steps toward education and science are being undertaken by Qatar's government in its Education City and the new Saudi King Abdulaziz University of Science and Technology. It may be that Obama is referring to the planned $7.5 billion in aid pledged to Pakistan, some of which would go toward education.

In any case, Obama's reference to relations with the Muslim world was essentially a soft throw-away line. What would improve U.S. relations with Muslims would be a swift movement toward a two-state solution in Israel and Palestine and an end to the Israeli blockade of Gaza's children. A frank acknowledgment that the U.S. has been powerless to make headway on this essential issue would have been welcome. So too would be an acknowledgment by the president of the justice of the letter calling on Israel to desist from its blockade of Gaza circulated by 54 Democratic members of the House of Representatives, in a rare act of defiance toward the powerful Israel lobbies.

This is the final relevant paragraph:

As we have for over sixty years, America takes these actions because our destiny is connected to those beyond our shores. But we also do it because it is right. That is why, as we meet here tonight, over 10,000 Americans are working with many nations to help the people of Haiti recover and rebuild. That is why we stand with the girl who yearns to go to school in Afghanistan; we support the human rights of the women marching through the streets of Iran; and we advocate for the young man denied a job by corruption in Guinea. For America must always stand on the side of freedom and human dignity.

The attempt to position the U.S. military occupation of Afghanistan and the saber-rattling and threatened sanctions against Iran as somehow beneficial to women in those countries is a continuation of Bush administration rhetoric that is unworthy of Obama. These themes may appeal to the Mavis Leno faction of American feminists, but are unconnected to Afghan and Iranian women's lived reality. The position of women in Afghanistan is better now than under the Taliban, but the new Afghanistan is still an Islamic republic, and president Karzai pandered for votes among the Shiite Hazaras by allowing Shiite law to operate among them on personal status issues, rather than national law. One implication of this step is that Hazara women are now liable to marital rape. So this is the liberation the Obama administration is bringing Afghan women? Moreover, Obama's escalation of the war will have a negative impact on women and families caught in the crossfire. It is a foolish argument to make because so easily disproven.

Moreover, many of the female protesters in Iran have been traditionalists in full veil, who support the ideals of the regime but were disappointed that Ahmadinejad stole the election. The idea that the Iranian opposition is made up of people just like Obama and his supporters is an American myth.

These few paragraphs on foreign policy in the speech were among its weakest. The plans for Afghanistan and nuclear disarmament seemed thin and utopian. The threats launched against Iran seemed empty. The use of a kind of "imperial feminism" to justify Obama's escalation of the Afghanistan war seemed just pandering to some of his constituency without holding much promise of genuine change for Afghan women. As for Iran, further economic sanctions will harm women and families most of all. Only in his express determination to withdraw from Iraq on schedule did Obama achieve the fire and conviction characteristic of much of the rest of the speech.

While it now seems as though the domestic economy and job creation are far more important than these foreign policy issues, the issues of Afghanistan, Pakistan (not mentioned), Iran and Palestine will likely generate among the more important crises in Obama's presidency, and he needs desperately to get a better handle on them and take control of policy, or his opponents will maneuever him into playing either Lyndon Johnson or Jimmy Carter. Just because he says he would be satisfied with a single term is no reason to let the hawks impose one on him.

Juan Cole

Juan Cole is collegiate professor of history at the University of Michigan. He runs a news and commentary webzine on U.S. foreign policy and progressive politics, Informed Comment. His new book, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires (Nation Books), has just been published.


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Afghanistan Barack Obama Iran Iraq Israel Middle East State Of The Union