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Obama's final State of the Union big on foreign policy themes

Obama's final State of the Union big on foreign policy themes
Published 13 Jan 2016   Follow @captainbrown

The State of the Union is the world's most carefully read speech, traditionally devoted to domestic issues, and usually criticised more for what it doesn't say than what it does. In his last annual message to Congress, the challenge for President Obama, the world's orator-in-chief, was not so much to find soaring rhetoric but rather to contain it. He needed to avoid languid prose which, rather than locking in his legacy might instead highlight his inability to corral a curmudgeonly Congress on domestic issues and live up to the foreign policy expectations incumbent on a Nobel peace prize recipient.

In my view, he got halfway there, and his strongest points were on the issues that will count most during this year's presidential and congressional elections. But first to domestic policy.

Like last year, the crux of Obama's pitch to voters was a resurgent US domestic economy underpinned by energy security and stability. New this year was his message about managing disruption, particularly technological disruption, best summarised in this line: 'Americans understand that at some point in their careers, they may have to retool and retrain. But they shouldn't lose what they've already worked so hard to build.'

The message of accepting technological disruption creates a neat arc to Obama's two terms. Linking this sentiment to efforts to defeat climate change (and downplaying his own significant achievements in bringing China and others together on environmental protection) was clever too: 'why would we want to pass up the chance for American businesses to produce and sell the energy of the future?'

Obama didn't quite say that there has never been a more exciting time to be an American, but he came close:

Our unique strengths as a nation ?— ?our optimism and work ethic, our spirit of discovery and innovation, our diversity and commitment to the rule of law?—?these things give us everything we need to ensure prosperity and security for generations to come.

Obama had a lot to say on America's global interests. Foreign policy is assuming abnormally large focus in the 2016 presidential race, as colleagues and I have outlined here. That's driven by resurgent American public opinion that wants America to take a more active role in global affairs. [fold]

Successive polls by Pew and the Chicago Council for Global Affairs show a clear uptick in concerns about the role of America in the world on both sides of the political aisle. Much of this concern is driven by anxieties over Islamist fanatics, specifically ISIS. In the past year the number of Americans who view Islamic fundamentalism as a critical threat to national security has risen dramatically (35% to 48% for independent voters, 38% to 56% for Democrats, 48% to 66% for Republicans). Pew's 2015 polling found that terrorism was the number one policy issue for 76% of Americans, narrowly edging out the economy. A new version of that poll due this week is expected to confirm that finding.

And so concerns about ISIS dominated President Obama's speech. He set it as 'priority number one' for America's foreign policy, though with this sensible caveat: 'But as we focus on destroying ISIL, over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands'. Susan Rice received trenchant criticism from Republicans for articulating this view a year ago, but it is correct – and it is a view shared by Australia's Prime Minister. Obama's endorsement of the anti-ISIS coalition's strategy as the best available was fair, but his criticism of Congress for refusing to authorise the use of military force in the region seemed overblown. As did this:

If you doubt America's commitment?—?or mine?—?to see that justice is done, ask Osama bin Laden. Ask the leader of al Qaeda in Yemen, who was taken out last year, or the perpetrator of the Benghazi attacks, who sits in a prison cell.

Rejoinders fell from Twitter like wedding confetti: Syria, South China Sea, Afghanistan. House Speaker Paul Ryan's rebuttal was out within minutes: 'The president's current strategy to defeat ISIS is failing, plain and simple'. The strategy isn't failing, but progress is damned hard to demonstrate: for all the 22,1000 bombs the US dropped on Iraq and Syria in the past year, ISIS doesn't seem to have gotten any smaller.

Rejecting the extremes of American isolationism and full-blown global interventionism, Obama described his foreign policy approach thus:

Fortunately, there's a smarter approach, a patient and disciplined strategy that uses every element of our national power. It says America will always act, alone if necessary, to protect our people and our allies; but on issues of global concern, we will mobilize the world to work with us, and make sure other countries pull their own weight.

I don't subscribe to the theory that all the world's problems in 2015 are largely the result of Obama Administration fecklessness. But the President's sometimes jerky and often hesitant foreign policy could use some buttressing. Some of the examples he drew on to back up his argument about a 'patient and disciplined strategy' (Syria, Yemen) were unconvincing.

Closer to Asia, the State of the Union pre-briefing had flagged a big push for the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). Atlantic correspondent James Fallows said:

Although obviously I am honor-bound not to reveal what was discussed in an off-the-record briefing, it seems to me that this section of the speech — TPP, Ebola, Cuba, (and the Iran deal must be coming) — reflects things that the president thinks deserves a hell of a lot more attention.

But TPP was a damp squib. Barely 15 supporters on the floor leaped to their feet when it was mentioned, applause was sparse, and Speaker Ryan seemed to be darting his eyes around the room to gauge support. The Administration has invested significant resources in TPP, plans on signing it in New Zealand early next month, and looks committed to seeing it voted through Congress in May. But today's speech did little to push TPP along, and the rebalance to Asia wasn't mentioned at all.

Reasserting America's global strength, Obama said 'when it comes to every important international issue, people of the world do not look to Beijing or Moscow to lead? — ?they call us'. But this line merely skated the surface of raging geopolitical rivalries across the globe.

Finally, President Obama's most egregious and most unforgivable oversight: for the 94th year running, the State of the Union bore no mention of Australia.

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