The president’s State of the Union speech was more thematic than it has been past years, including on foreign policy, where he spent more time describing his multi-pronged approach to national security and his intention to avoid excessive dependence on military force and to lessen U.S. focus on individual crises. This was good speechmaking and, on balance, a reasonable defense of a foreign policy that is doing better than many critics allege.
That said, Mr. Obama does need to reconsider how several issues are unfolding:
– On Afghanistan, the president noted that NATO’s formal combat mission has come to an end, but did not acknowledge the mistake of his plan to zero out U.S. forces there by the end of next year. Such a complete departure would jeopardize Afghanistan’s stability and deprive the United States of two or three bases from which it can conduct drone strikes and other counterterrorism missions if needed. At least the president did not repeat his commitment to leave next year; perhaps he is reconsidering.
– On Russia and Ukraine, Mr. Obama was right to note that the situation is now punishing Vladimir Putin and his nation, proving that aggression does not pay in today’s world. But there was no vision for how to extricate ourselves, and Russia, from this crisis. A grand diplomatic bargain should be considered.
– Obama’s discussion of Asia – and specifically China – was good, with a focus on preserving stability, patiently guiding China’s rise through continued American resolve, and use of trade tools (notably the Trans Pacific Partnership) in addition to other instruments of U.S. national power.
– On Syria, the president made his greatest oversight, however. In a conflict that has killed more than 200,000, displaced an astronomical 10 million, and showed no signs of abating after four years, the president could do no more than brag of stopping ISIS’s further advances and asking Congress for a legal refinement in the official doctrinal tools by which the war is waged. Our strategy needs a fundamental makeover, and it would have been good to hear the president recognize as much, lest this bleeding wound and hotbed of extremist activity remain a sanctuary for terrorists for years to come.
But on balance, this was a fairly good speech summarizing Mr. Obama’s fairly reasonable overall foreign policy, making this a better than average State of the Union address.
Falling apart? The politics of New START and strategic modernization
Sentiment inside the Beltway has turned sharply against China. There are many issues where the two parties sound more or less the same. Trump and others in the administration seem heavily invested in a ‘get very tough with China’ stance. It’s possible that some Democrats might argue that a decoupling strategy borders on lunacy. But if Trump believes this will play well with his core constituencies as his reelection campaign moves into high gear, he will probably decide to stick with it, if the costs and the collateral damage seem manageable. But that’s a very big if, especially if the downsides of a protracted trade war for both American consumers and for American firms become increasingly apparent.
Over the arc of his presidency, Trump has shed himself of cabinet secretaries he doesn’t trust and surrounded himself with loyalists. That will continue and escalate. But the big problem is, he doesn’t know where he’s going.