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Analysis: Why Obama sidelined foreign policy

Obama's speech, heavy on domestic concerns, reflected the political reality that he faces midterm elections.

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his first State of the Union address on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 27, 2010. (Reuters)

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.