Analysis: Why Obama sidelined foreign policy

WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Barack Obama had nothing fresh, and not much else, to say about American foreign policy last night.

In what was, surely, a reflection of the economic and political challenges Obama faces as he enters this midterm election year, the president spoke for about an hour on domestic issues, and for just a few moments on international affairs. If it was not the least any president has said about foreign policy in a State of the Union speech, it must be awfully close.

Obama’s boldest proposal on national security was to declare, as the Joint Chiefs of Staff watched stone-faced from the front rows of the audience, that the U.S. should relax its policy banning gays from serving in the military.

There was no reference to the Nobel Peace Prize or the Obama doctrine — that the U.S. should play a more cooperative role in the world, and negotiate with even the most resolute foes. The troublesome situation in Pakistan was not mentioned, nor Yemen, nor Israel, Palestine or Cuba.

A speech, of course, is not a reflection of how Obama occupies his time. Winding down the war in Iraq, adding troops in Afghanistan and striking at Islamic terrorists in Pakistan and Yemen command his attention. So, too, do the other issues he cited: nuclear proliferation, global warming and economic competition with rivals like China and India.

But Obama’s address came on the heels of Democratic defeats in statewide races in New Jersey, Virginia and Massachusetts. In tough economic times voters focus on the challenges and pain that are close at hand.

The president would have hailed, at length, his strategic breakthroughs — if only he had some. The closest he came to boasting was when citing the success of U.S. aerial drone attacks on Al Qaeda’s leadership.

“In the last year, hundreds of Al Qaeda’s fighters and affiliates, including many senior leaders, have been captured or killed — far more than in 2008,” he said.

Obama did predict that the U.S. would soon sign a new strategic arms treaty, and make other progress on nuclear proliferation.

“The United States and Russia are completing negotiations on the farthest-reaching arms control treaty in nearly two decades,” he said. “And at April’s Nuclear Security Summit, we will bring 44 nations together behind a clear goal: securing all vulnerable nuclear materials around the world in four years, so that they never fall into the hands of terrorists.”

Obama did not choose, as some of his predecessors did, to wear the mantle of wartime president — no doubt because the public opinion polls show that his escalation of the war in Afghanistan is not popular.

“In Afghanistan, we are 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,” he said.

And homecoming was the theme of Obama’s remarks about Iraq, as well.

“We are responsibly leaving Iraq to its people. As a candidate, I promised that I would end this war, and that is what I am doing as President,” Obama said. “We will have all of our combat troops out of Iraq by the end of this August. We will support the Iraqi government as they hold elections, and continue to partner with the Iraqi people to promote regional peace and prosperity.

“But make no mistake: This war is ending, and all of our troops are coming home,” he said.

(At which point, the TV cameras captured Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, a strong supporter of the Iraq war, mouthing the word “Slowwwwly.”)

Obama’s warning to Iran over the Iranian nuclear weapons program — “As Iran’s leaders continue to ignore their obligations, there should be no doubt: they, too, will face growing consequences” — lacked the muscle or rhetorical fire voiced by his predecessors, when confronting other antagonists.

The president vowed to match China, India and America’s other economic rivals in scientific and technological prowess, and spoke proudly of how Haitians chanted “USA! USA!” in gratitude for American relief efforts.

But that was it. Barring an unforeseen breakthrough, or military or terrorist disaster, Obama knows that next fall’s election will be decided on the questions of jobs and income, not foreign policy, and his speech last night was a reflection of that political reality.