Gauging foreign policy in Obama’s State of the Union address

  • Author: James M. Lindsay
  • Source: Council on Foreign Relations
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  • Published: 25 January 2012
  • Filed: 25 January 2012
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President Obama delivers his State of the Union address at the US Capitol (Photo: White House/Pete Souza)

President Obama delivers his State of the Union address at the US Capitol (Photo: White House/Pete Souza)


The theme for Barack Obama’s discussion of foreign policy in his 2012 State of the Union address was “No Apology.” After months of listening to his Republican rivals pummel his handling of world affairs, he made clear that he sees foreign policy as one of his strengths and he intends to make the most of it.

Obama both began and ended his speech by touting his foreign policy successes: After nine years of war, no Americans are fighting in Iraq. US troops have begun to come home from Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden no longer threatens the United States. Muammar Gaddafi no longer terrorises Libya. America’s friendships and alliances around the world are stronger than ever. In all, under his watch, “America is back.”

In an implicit recognition of Republican claims that he is more interested in apologising for America’s mistakes than advancing its interests, Obama dismissed talk of US decline, and embraced American exceptionalism.

Obama highlighted the sweeping changes that have rocked the Middle East and North Africa over the past year. He declared that the United States had a “huge stake” in the region’s transformation, said his administration would stand “against violence and intimidation,” and suggested that in Syria the Assad regime’s days were numbered. But the president offered no specific plans or initiatives to promote the forces of liberty and democracy in the region, and he stopped well short of pledging to unseat the government in Damascus.

Israel merited only a brief mention, but it was forceful and to the point. The United States and Israel are enjoying their closest military cooperation ever.

Obama singled out Iran when he vowed to act decisively against regimes that threatened America’s citizens, friends, and interests. He repeated his commitment “to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon” and insisted that all options were on the table. But he was also careful to offer Tehran an olive branch, saying that it was within Iran’s power to reach a peaceful resolution of the dispute.

Obama glossed over other potential threats to American security. He said nothing about China’s growing military might or the increasingly hostile rhetoric coming from Russia. He said nothing about North Korea. The challenges that remain in Afghanistan went unmentioned.

But this State of the Union address was never intended to be a policy speech. It was instead the opening salvo in his 2012 presidential campaign. And Obama’s message to his Republican opponents was that he has no intention of running away from his foreign policy record. He is instead going to run on it.

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