Obama’s Speech Offers Little Substance on Foreign Affairs

By Patrick Goodenough | February 13, 2013 | 4:29 AM EST

The U.S. House of Representatives Chamber ahead of the State of the Union address on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012. (Image: White House webcast)

(CNSNews.com) – President Obama’s State of the Union Tuesday contained little of substance on foreign affairs, although he did throw his weight behind calls for a trade agreement between the United States and Europe.

He announced plans to launch formal talks on a trans-Atlantic trade partnership – an initiative endorsed last week by European Union leaders at a summit in Brussels, and enjoying some bipartisan support in the U.S. Senate – saying that “trade that is free and fair across the Atlantic supports millions of good-paying American jobs.”

Obama also confirmed the intention to complete negotiations for a trans-Pacific trade deal.

There was little else of note on foreign affairs, apart from the news – leaked ahead of the speech – that “over the next year, another 34,000 American troops will come home from Afghanistan.”

He went on to declare that “by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over” – before adding that the U.S. was negotiating an agreement with Kabul that would enable it, after 2014, “to pursue the remnants of al-Qaeda and their affiliates.”

As anticipated, the speech focused largely on economic matters.

But North Korea’s defiant nuclear weapons test on Tuesday did ensure that the reclusive Stalinist regime got a mention (after being ignored in the 2012 SOTU).

“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 said.

Iran was also cautioned over its suspect nuclear activities, with the president saying that “we will do what is necessary to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon.”

(Last year, Obama said, “Let there be no doubt: America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal.”)

On the so-called “Arab spring,” the president acknowledged that “the process will be messy, and 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,” he added. “We will keep the pressure on a Syrian regime that has murdered its own people, and support opposition leaders that respect the rights of every Syrian.” (Twelve months ago, Obama said in his SOTU, “I have no doubt that the Assad regime will soon discover that the forces of change can’t be reversed.”)

The president said al-Qaeda “is a shadow of its former self,” but conceded that the threat posed by affiliated groups that have emerged from the Arabian peninsula to Africa is “evolving.”

“But to meet this threat, we don’t need to send tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad, or occupy other nations. Instead, we will need to help countries like Yemen, Libya, and Somalia provide for their own security, and help allies who take the fight to terrorists, as we have in Mali,” he said.

“And, where necessary, through a range of capabilities, we will continue to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans.”

The single mention of Libya underscored the absence of any reference to Benghazi, where a Sept. 11 terror attack on the U.S. consulate cost the lives of four Americans, including the first ambassador to be killed in an attack in more than three decades.

A few minutes further on in the speech, Benghazi would have again been in the minds of many when Obama noted that America’s diplomats, among others, “serve in dangerous places at great personal risk.”

“As long as I’m commander-in-chief, we will do whatever we must to protect those who serve their country abroad,” he added.

Other foreign policy issues getting a mention in the speech included Israel’s security, positive changes in Burma, a reference – with no details – to engaging with Russia “to seek further reductions in our nuclear arsenals,” the need to strengthen defenses against cyber-attacks, and the fight against poverty and AIDS.

Delivering the Republican Party’s response to the State of the Union, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said, “On foreign policy, America continues to be indispensable to the goal of global liberty, prosperity and safeguarding human rights.”

“The world is a better place when America is the strongest nation on earth,” he said. “But we can’t remain powerful if we don’t have an economy that can afford it.”

In other GOP reaction, House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said Obama was sending the wrong message by proposing to engage Moscow on further nuclear reductions “less than 24 hours after North Korea’s latest nuclear test and as Iran moves closer to a nuclear weapon.”

“I was troubled that the president believes that the moral persuasion of disarmament will convince the dictatorial regimes in Tehran and Pyongyang to change course,” he said. “What is needed are real, debilitating sanctions.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow