President Obama’s State of the Union reflects ‘strong’ America

The president voiced America's commitment to fighting terrorism, but said he won't be dragged into “unnecessary” conflicts. (Reuters)

Seemingly defiant, President Obama addressed joint members of Congress Tuesday evening, declaring: “The shadow of crisis has passed, and the State of the Union is strong.”

In his penultimate State of the Union speech, the president, deep into his second term, spoke of an assured nation that is growing economically and emerging from decades at war.

Read also: Full text and video of Obama's State of the Union address

Force against ISIS

In strong foreign policy remarks, the president called on the Republican-led Congress to pass a resolution to authorize force against ISIS. President Obama touted American leadership in Iraq and Syria, crediting U.S. military power with stopping the advance of ISIS.

The president voiced his oft-repeated sentiments that the administration’s support of a “moderate opposition in Syria” would assist in the push to combat such terror groups.

While he was optimistic about his policy towards countering ISIS, Max Abrahms, a terror expert and a professor of political science at Northeastern University, told Al Arabiya News that President Obama’s efforts to shift ground operations to local actors in Syria “would require us to delegate ground forces to the so-called rebels, who are feckless. Our efforts to train them will not work. They are too weak and unreliable.”

The president’s remarks seemed to stoke the need for greater force in Syria, while he still works to maintain the idea that the United States cannot become increasingly involved in more global battles.

Obama mentioned that the United States is going to avoid “getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East,” but will rather lead “a broad coalition, including Arab nations, to degrade and ultimately destroy this terrorist group.” While the coordination with regional actors is necessary by all accounts, Abrahms said that “what the U.S. needs is not air assistance, but ground assistance, and no member of the coalition is filling that need.”

Confident, the president spoke about how the United States is now complete with the combat mission in Afghanistan, reducing its dependence on foreign oil, and increasing its leadership globally through diplomatic engagement.

While foreign policy only dominated around 1,000 words of his nearly 6,000 word speech, the president seemed to send a strong message: “the question is not whether America leads in the world, but how. When we make rash decisions, reacting to the headlines instead of using our heads; when the first response to a challenge is to send in our military - then we risk getting drawn into unnecessary conflicts, and neglect the broader strategy we need for a safer, more prosperous world. That’s what our enemies want us to do.”

 

Veto Iran sanctions

In arguably one of the more controversial foreign policy moves in this last phase of the Obama administration, the president has stated - in no uncertain terms - that if a bill proposing new sanctions against Iran over their nuclear program comes to his desk, he will use his veto authority. The administration has been adamant that their recent efforts in negotiating with Iran with regard to their nuclear program have been making advancements without the threat of sanctions or military force.

“We have a chance to negotiate a comprehensive agreement that prevents a nuclear-armed Iran; secures America and our allies - including Israel; while avoiding yet another Middle East conflict,” the president said in his speech. “There are no guarantees that negotiations will succeed, and I keep all options on the table to prevent a nuclear Iran. But new sanctions passed by this Congress, at this moment in time, will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails - alienating America from its allies; and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again.”

Tehran concessions

The negotiations, which have passed their deadline for an agreement several times in the last months, have been the symbol of progress in long-suspended relations between Washington and Tehran. The administration has taken to seeing Tehran as the conduit in the fight to stabilize Baghdad. However, some find the notion that negotiations with Iran as a solution, problematic. “It is not true that the only alternative to the current diplomacy is war; it is not true that more sanctions will trigger war.

Sanctions are leverage, which the President has partially renounced in exchange for Iran’s readiness to negotiate, not in exchange for meaningful concessions. The President is thus ensuring that American leverage will continue to diminish over time,” said Dr. Emanuele Ottolenghi, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

“Iran can only interpret the President’s veto threat as a signal that it can endlessly negotiate without fear of negative repercussions. Clearly, if the president thinks that no new sanctions should be passed amidst negotiations, what incentive is there for Tehran to make any concessions, given that Iran will pay no price for its intransigence?” Ottolenghi added.

‘Not who we are’

In his last foreign policy point, the president reminded the members of congress of the first promise he made as president: to close the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. During his first month in office, President Obama issued an executive order vowing to close the detention center down within a year. Six years later, 122 detainees still remain in the controversial prison.

Yet, on Tuesday evening he strongly stated that keeping Guantanamo open is “not who we are” as Americans. “We have a profound commitment to justice - so it makes no sense to spend three million dollars per prisoner to keep open a prison that the world condemns and terrorists use to recruit.”

In his State of the Union, President Obama painted a picture of a nation at its strongest point-one that has grown, strengthened itself and its allies, and rose above adversity. Even while mentioning the heavy tumult the country has endured in recent days - racial and religious tensions, the continued counterterrorism fight, and bipartisan divides, the president was optimistic - almost forgetting that though technically out of the weeds of two wars, the United States still has itself tied to a region in tatters.

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