State of the Union: No Obama Doctrine on Foreign Policy

Anyone hoping to hear from President Obama a more overarching foreign policy vision in his State of the Union speech on Tuesday night went home disappointed.

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry applauds as President Barack Obama gives his State of the Union address on Feb. 12, 2013

Anyone hoping to hear from President Obama a more overarching foreign policy vision in his State of the Union speech on Tuesday night went home disappointed. Yes, second-term Presidents usually focus on foreign policy. And, yes, Obama just two weeks ago elevated his Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough to be his chief of staff and shuffled his foreign policy team, naming new secretaries of State and Defense and a new head of the CIA. But Obama made it clear that, at least for the first year of his second term, he would be focusing on domestic politics: gun control, immigration, fiscal cliffs and jobs.

That said, the President had plenty to say on foreign policy, though slightly less than last year’s Osama bin Laden–heavy speech. In his first address of a joint session of Congress in February 2009, Obama dedicated just eight paragraphs out of 94 to foreign policy. In 2010, he spent eight out of 105 paragraphs on foreign policy. In 2011, he had 17 out of 111. And last year it was 18 of 109. This year he had 13 paragraphs out of 88. In other words, percentage-wise, foreign policy is slowly gaining ground, but compared with the economy and jobs, it’s definitely still on the back burner.

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What is an Obama doctrine? Thus far, leading from behind — for lack of a better phrase — seems to define his foreign policy. The President is heavy on the covert ops and has pushed allies into places like Libya and Democratic Republic of Congo. He gives technical and humanitarian assistance where needed, like in Syria. But he’s not one to start land wars in Asia — indeed, he swore to end the war in Afghanistan in his speech on Tuesday — or fund guerrilla wars in the name of democracy. What most foreign policy experts say has been lacking is an overarching strategy to deal with the Arab Spring rather than stumbling from one uprising to the next. And this was not something Obama addressed on Tuesday. “An Obama doctrine is still a work in progress,” says Michael O’Hanlon, a foreign policy expert at the progressive Brookings Institution in Washington. “A drone base in Niger or brigade in the Congo, they’re good policy but they don’t have flash and sex appeal, and they distract from his core purpose, which is the economy.”

As the newly minted Secretary of State, John Kerry, noted in his confirmation hearing, the economy is very much a foreign policy issue these days. To that end, Obama made news announcing a new effort for a free-trade agreement with Europe and a trans-Pacific partnership with “the growing markets of Asia.”

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Obama also made news chastising the North Koreans for their nuclear test earlier in the day, warning them that their moves “will only isolate them further.” On Iran, he stopped short of again calling for direct talks, which Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei rejected on Feb. 7, but said that “now is the time for a diplomatic solution … and we will do what is necessary to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon.”

Perhaps the biggest news of the night was his announcement that in a year’s time more than half the remaining U.S. troops — some 34,000 — would be back home “and by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over,” he said, drawing a standing ovation. Still, many questions remained. Obama “did not really explain what led to the accelerated timetable or how a small residual force could accomplish the ambitious goals he outlined,” says Mike Singh, managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The President has struggled to define publicly his goals for that conflict, much less his strategy for achieving them or how the recent steps he has outlined brings them closer to fruition.”

(MORE: Transcript of President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union Speech)

Much of the foreign policy segment of the speech was defined by what he didn’t mention: for the first time since the U.S. invasion a decade ago, a U.S. President did not mention Iraq in a State of the Union address. Obama was mum on the controversial Keystone-pipeline decision with Canada, Middle East peace, the pivot to Asia and closing Guantánamo. Most notably, he did not utter the words war on terror. “A key question is: Have we dropped the phrase war on terror? Or have we found some clever new phrasing?” says Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It won’t change the way we approach the problem, but we have to find a better way to say it.”

Obama noted that al-Qaeda “is a shadow of its former self.” He continued:

Different al-Qaeda affiliates and extremist groups have emerged — from the Arabian Peninsula to Africa. The threat these groups pose 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. 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.

This was perhaps the closest Obama came to redefining America’s struggle against terrorism — and hinting at his vision. Perhaps next year, when the fiscal cliffs are done and immigration has passed, Obama will finally deliver a doctrine.

MORE: Senator Marco Rubio’s Response to Obama’s State of the Union Address (Transcript)

19 comments
rorywong654
rorywong654

Good American citizen,please answer the following question:1)Which country developed the atomic bomb and used it first. 2)Which country had the chemical warfare on other country first hint(Veitnam) 3)Which country used cluster bomb first(Middle East) 4)Which country started the cyber warfare on other country first(hint Iran) 5)Which country used the Drone first on other country and around the world

Nationwidevotes
Nationwidevotes

Did you agree with Obama's 2013 State of the Union Address? Vote at www.nationwidevotes.com 

carotexas
carotexas

Jay, I think you need to watch what his actions are.  

lomtevas
lomtevas

@TIME Doctrine is family intrusion, economic status quo, empty promises and a single minded fixation to amend our right to possess arms.

reallife
reallife

We already know Obama's doctrine. It will be his legacy.

"IT'S BUSH'S FAULT"


BAPUkiKR
BAPUkiKR

@TIME Worldwide Parents worship day celebrations on 14 Feb - initiated by Param Pujya Asaram Bapu Ji.

MrObvious
MrObvious

If we spend more of our tax money nationally then I'm all for it. Our military industrial complex is fat and fed enough. It's time to fix our roads, our crumbling infrastructure and figure out how we can revive our manufacturing industry. The world is just going to have to figure out how to function without our military assets for a while.

Em_BN
Em_BN

Change in US-Africa relations? RT“@TIME: Obama's State of the Union speech: No doctrine on foreign policy | http://t.co/25SoWiYg” #WitsIR

striperone70
striperone70

@TIME -READ YOUR ARTICLE "Immigrant Son" ESPECIALLY THE LINE,"ROUGH ROAD AHEAD" & CALL ME IN THE RV. OK?

elcidharth
elcidharth

Since the initial fact, as put by TIME so elegantly (sic), foreign policy of Barack Obama has taken some beating in the (biased) mainstream media, why shed crocodile's tears over his lack of enthusiasm in the third (rate) State of the Union (scripted) speech?

As I recall, my own comments on the Republican race for their nomination (debates) and all, I kept telling the world that under the (bleak) circumstances, Barack (if elected) or Mitt (if elected, thank God almighty, he was defeated) should focus on domestic (burning) issues than fooling around with American foreign policy.

I was right, then and now.

A declining (fast) former superpower, the good old US of A, has but limited possibilities to manage the world (problems).

...and I am Sid Harth@elcidharth.com

drudown
drudown

Congratulations! You published an article and managed to say nothing substantive. Let's see. You counted the lines of Obama's speech and drew inferences from what wasn't in it. Riveting analysis. 

The most notable part of Obama's speech that touch and concerns Foreign Policy is the overarching justification for continued use of the drones to combat terrorism, i.e., it is a much preferable, cost-effective means to engage enemies than traditional ground war at the expense of American lives and fiscal resources. 

But you missed that (ahem) counting lines.

deconstructiva
deconstructiva

Thanks, Jay. Right now I'll just settle for Obama NOT starting new wars (like Iran). That alone is a dramatic improvement over Bush. But your last paragraph hints at the immediate problems: we first MUST take care of fiscal biz and get our House (pun intended) in order ...and put everyone back to work (literally). Not a single bullet need be fired (or drone buzzed overhead) for us to wreck havoc on foreign lands - imagine if we had defaulted on Fed debt.