Obama's State of the Union

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Foreign Policy in Focus

Obama's State of the Union

by
Stephen Zunes

For eight years, I wrote annotated critiques of the foreign policy segments of George W. Bush’s State of the Union speeches. Despite two ongoing wars, it was striking that Obama focused so little in his first State of the Union speech on the world outside our borders other than the call to be competitive in the global economy. Indeed, he dedicated only eight minutes of the 70-minute speech to foreign policy.

Yet many of the pressing economic problems the country faces that were addressed in the speech are directly related to foreign policy. And, despite promises of change, much of this foreign policy shows disappointing continuity with previous administrations.

Military Blind Spot

For example, Obama declared, to enthusiastic applause, “I do not accept second place for the United States of America.” He is certainly making sure that the United States remains number one in military spending. Indeed, the United States spends six times more than China, the number two country in military appropriations. In his rejection of the single-payer option as being too expensive, however, Obama seems quite willing to accept the 37th place that the United States occupies in the health care ranking.

In announcing a freeze on domestic spending, he dismissed “some in my own party [who] will argue that we can't address the deficit or freeze government spending when so many are still hurting” by emphasizing that “if we don't take meaningful steps to rein in our debt, it could damage our markets, increase the cost of borrowing, and jeopardize our recovery.” If Obama really cared about the deficit, however, he would have called for major cuts in military spending. Not only did he refuse to do so, he specifically exempted the Pentagon budget from the freeze, underscoring his commitment to spend more and more taxpayer dollars to ensure the profits of military contractors and the continued prosecution of overseas wars, even as the country’s social services and domestic infrastructure deteriorate still further.

The president talked of strengthened sanctions against North Korea for its nuclear program, adding – to enthusiastic bipartisan applause – that “as Iran's leaders continue to ignore their obligations, there should be no doubt: They, too, will face growing consequences. That is a promise.” While it is certainly true that Iran and North Korea are in defiance of demands by the UN Security Council regarding their nuclear programs, it is also true that Israel, India, and Pakistan are in defiance of the UN Security Council regarding their nuclear programs as well. However, the Obama administration has shown little inclination to impose or even threaten sanctions against its allies, which not only are engaged in far more advanced nuclear reprocessing but – unlike the Iranians – actually possess nuclear weapons. UN Security Council resolution 487 calls on Israel to turn its nuclear facilities over to the trusteeship of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Pakistan and India, meanwhile, remain in defiance of UNSC resolution 1172, calling on them to eliminate their nuclear weapons and nuclear-capable missiles altogether. Indeed, Obama is continuing his predecessor’s practices of providing all three countries with nuclear-capable aircraft and other delivery systems as well as directly facilitating India’s nuclear program.

To his credit, Obama acknowledged the importance of the two largest nuclear powers – the United States and Russia – completing negotiations on a far-reaching arms control treaty as part of “a strategy that reverses the spread of these weapons and seeks a world without them.” This, however, is a long-overdue legal obligation of the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which requires the existing nuclear weapons states to make good-faith efforts to pursue complete nuclear disarmament, something which even such Cold War hawks as Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, William Perry, and Sam Nunn have acknowledged as necessary. Again, it will be hard to convince Iran and North Korea to live by their NPT obligations as long as the United States and the other major nuclear powers fail to do so as well.

Similarly, it will be virtually impossible to control the threatened spread of nuclear weapons as long as nuclear power remains a preferred source of energy. Obama’s oxymoronic call for taxpayer-funded incentives for the construction of “a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country” will make non-proliferation efforts all the more difficult.

On the Side of Freedom?

Obama, as he often does so eloquently, appealed to the both moral obligation and the enlightened self-interest of the United States in declaring that “America must always stand on the side of freedom and human dignity.” He noted that such principles were why “we support the human rights of the women marching through the streets of Iran” and “why we advocate for the young man denied a job by corruption in Guinea.” The influence the United States has on these countries, however, is far less than those of such U.S. allies as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Equatorial Guinea, whose corrupt and repressive regimes are bolstered by American economic and security assistance.

Obama’s early and prescient opposition to the Iraq War was largely responsible for his securing the Democratic presidential nomination from his initially pro-war opponents. In his State of the Union speech he reiterated “As a candidate, I promised that I would end this war, and that is what I am doing as President.” Specifically, he promised that “We will have all of our combat troops out of Iraq by the end of this August.” Unfortunately, what constitutes “combat troops” remains vague. By most accounts, the United States will still have over 50,000 troops in Iraq after this “withdrawal,” virtually all of whom will be fully armed and will still be authorized to use lethal force whenever they deem necessary. He also promised to “support the Iraqi government as they hold elections” despite their banning of prominent opposition politicians from running, engaging in ongoing human rights abuses, and remaining one of the most corrupt regimes in the world.

In the early 1970s, President Richard Nixon insisted that escalating the war in Vietnam and its neighbors and training the armed forces of a corrupt and fraudulently-elected allied government was necessary to bring American troops home. Similarly, President Obama declared that “in Afghanistan, we're 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.” In Vietnam, nearly four years elapsed between the time when U.S. troops began to come home and the withdrawal was finally completed, during which an additional 20,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese were killed. Even Obama administration officials acknowledge that U.S. forces could remain fighting in Afghanistan for at least another decade.

Though this year’s critique of the foreign policy segments of the State of the Union address is not nearly as long as those I wrote under President Bush, I am still disappointed to have to write one at all. Yes, the problems with the Obama administration’s foreign policy are not nearly as egregious as its predecessor. But U.S. citizens must continue to push the administration to pursue a more rational and more ethical global agenda.

Stephen Zunes is a Foreign Policy in Focus senior analyst. He is a professor of Politics and chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco and is the author, along with Jacob Mundy, of the forthcoming Western Sahara: Nationalism, Conflict, and International Accountability (Syracuse University Press).

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