President Barack Obama spent less than 25% of his 2013 State of the Union speech on foreign policy. As expected, most of the speech was about domestic economic issues. Obama gave the speech February 12.
The "usual suspects" -- Afghanistan, Al Qaeda, North Korea, and Iran -- dominated what little time Obama did give to foreign policy. Here are the highlights of the speech.
Obama announced that the U.S. will bring 34,000 troops out of Afghanistan during 2013. That adds to the 33,000 troops that have already left. He said, "This drawdown will continue and by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over."
The war started in 2001 after the Al Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. American troops entered the country and defeated the Taliban government, which had aided Al Qaeda. The United States installed a new government under President Hamid Karzai. After President George W. Bush diverted American military attention to the Iraq War in 2003, the Taliban became resurgent forcing U.S. troops into a pacification and stabilization role.
Obama said that, in Spring 2013, American troops will begin transition to a support role as Afghan forces take responsibility for their own country's security. Obama added that "America's commitment to a unified and sovereign Afghanistan will endure, but the nature of our commitment will change." He said the U.S. is negotiating with the Afghan government to continue supplying and training Afghan troops, and to allow the U.S. to conduct counterterrorism efforts where necessary. That means the U.S. should still be able to enter Afghanistan at will to hunt down Al Qaeda remnants or other terrorists.
Speaking of Al Qaeda, Obama said the terrorist organization is "a shadow of its former self." He admitted, though, that Al Qaeda splinter groups have arisen across the Middle East and Africa, and "the thread these groups pose is evolving."
He rejected the overwhelming-force approach to fighting terrorism that the U.S. has used over the last eleven years. "Instead, we'll need to help countries like Yemen, and Libya, and Somalia provide for their own security, and help allies who take the fight to terrorists, as we have in Mali," said Obama.
The president added, "where necessary, through a range of capabilities, we will continue to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans." Interpret that as Obama's policy of using small, specialized strike forces -- such as the Navy SEALS -- and drones to fight terrorism.
In an aside to critics who question the legality and morality of using drones, Obama said his administration is working to assure protocols for their use. "My administration has worked tirelessly to forge a durable legal and policy framework to guide our counterterrorism efforts," he said.
Obama referenced North Korea's test of a nuclear bomb earlier on February 12. That was the country's third successful test since 2006. Obama said North Korea can only achieve "security and prosperity" by complying with international mandates that it stop its nuclear weapons program. He said, "Provocations of the sort we saw last night will only further isolate them, as we stand by our allies, strengthen our own missile defense and lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats.
Obama gave the same advice to Iran, in an abbreviated statement. "Likewise, the leaders of Iran must recognize that now is the time for a diplomatic solution, because a coalition stands united in demanding that they meet their obligations, and we will do what is necessary to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon," he said.
Iran is reportedly working on its own nuclear device. Just as they have North Korea, the United Nations, United States, and other Western countries have levied a variety of sanctions against Iran to strangle resources that could fund its nuclear program.
Obama mentioned some other items with either direct or indirect relation to foreign policy. They include:
- Continuing talks with Russia to reduce and secure American and Russian nuclear arsenals.
- Establishing protections against cyber attacks on information systems, e-mails, power grids, financial institutions, air-traffic control, and other systems.
- Boosting both trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific trade and strengthening U.S. exports.
- Encouraging new markets and stronger economies in third-world areas.
- Continuing to encourage and support global democracy. "American must remain a beacon to all who seek freedom during this period of historic change," he said.
- Reaffirming global alliances "from the Americas to Africa; from Europe to Asia."
A Message To Detractors
In a foreign policy coda, Obama had a message for his political opponents who charge that he allowed the 2011 Arab Spring to place an anti-American Muslim Brotherhood member -- Mohammed Morsi -- in the Egyptian presidency, has ignored the Syrian civil war, and has gone soft on support for Israel.
"We cannot presume to dictate the course of change in countries like Egypt, but we can -- and will -- insist on respect for the fundamental rights of all people," Obama said. "We'll keep the pressure on a Syrian regime that has murdered its own people, and support opposition leaders that respect the rights of every Syrian. And we will stand steadfast with Israel in pursuit of security and a lasting peace."
In short, President Obama offered little in the way of new foreign policy directions. The structure and thrust of the speech indicates the first year of the president's second term, at least, will be steady on current foreign policy plans while he tackles domestic issues.