State of the Union: Obama’s Foreign Policy Goals Do Not Match Realities

January 21, 2015 Updated: April 23, 2016

The State of the Union lately has been more along the lines of wishful thinking than a launching pad for meaningful policy. By the admission of President Obama’s own administration, Politico reported “White House officials aren’t holding their breath that Obama’s new proposals will pass Congress now that Republicans control both chambers.”

Foreign policy aficionados are often times disappointed as foreign policy plays second fiddle to robust domestic proposals and agendas. This is somewhat true in the president’s speech yesterday. He offered very broad and idealistic statements pertaining to diplomacy, foreign strength and restraint. While the undertones of President Obama’s words are good policy, they do not reflect the realities going on in the world.

President Obama has been a very cautious leader when it comes to action abroad. This partly attributable to the actions of his predecessor and Obama’s shear disagreement with them, but also because, as Obama has maintained in private, he never wanted to deal with foreign policy – he’d rather spend time domestically on programs such as the Affordable Care Act.

In Obama’s State of the Union, he stated that the United States is currently combining military power with strong diplomacy while leveraging power with coalition building. These tactics, the president said, are making a difference. Here are a few examples of these tactics:

“Instead of Americans patrolling the valleys of Afghanistan, we’ve trained their security forces, who’ve now taken the lead, and we’ve honored our troops’ sacrifice by supporting that country’s first democratic transition. Instead of sending large ground forces overseas, we’re partnering with nations from South Asia to North Africa to deny safe haven to terrorists who threaten America.”

The president has officially concluded combat operations in Afghanistan. Though, he altered the number of residual troops to stay behind and train members of Afghanistan’s National Security Forces as to avoid a situation vis-à-vis Iraq. The United States under Obama has tried to rely on a small footprint by using drones and Special Forces rather than large deployments of armed service members. Pointing to South Asia and North Africa, the president was sure to avoid mentioning Somalia and Yemen – two nations the president held up as a model for counterterror operations as he unveiled his strategy to combat the Islamic State group calling it a counterterror program.

“In Iraq and Syria, American leadership – including our military power – is stopping ISIL’s advance. Instead of getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East, we are leading a broad coalition, including Arab nations, to degrade and ultimately destroy this terrorist group.”

While Obama does deserve some modest credit regarding the coalition he has built to fight the Islamic State group, or as he calls them ISIL, the overall strategy has faced harsh criticism from pundits. Despite the president’s words, reports indicate the Islamic State group has gained additional territory in Syria while they have seemingly been stalemated in Iraq – though, according to Pentagon spokesperson Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Islamic State group has lost 700 square kilometers.

“We’re also supporting a moderate opposition in Syria that can help us in this effort, and assisting people everywhere who stand up to the bankrupt ideology of violent extremism. This effort will take time. It will require focus. But we will succeed. And tonight, I call on this Congress to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL.”

The administration has caught flak for its delayed efforts pertaining to their train and equip program for Syrian rebels. Obama announced his desire for such a program months ago. However, Congress only passed a funding measure for the program in September, renewed it in December, and the Pentagon asserts rebels could be ready by the end of this year. As a side note, covert US forces with the CIA have been training some rebel groups in Jordan since at least 2013, though not large rebel factions.

Rebel groups feel abandoned by the US especially in instances where their positions come under fire from coalition air strikes. Many rebel groups share tactical battlefield alliances with Islamist groups the US views as adversaries and sometimes, bombings come close to rebel groups the US is sympathetic to given this tactical cooperation on the ground.

Further complicating matters, the New York Times reported yesterday a possible shift, or at the very least, a deviation in American policy – they will not push as hard to oust Syria’s leader Assad. According to the Times, “The Obama administration maintains that a lasting political solution requires Mr. Assad’s exit. But facing military stalemate, well-armed jihadists and the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, the United States is going along with international diplomatic efforts that could lead to more gradual change in Syria. That shift comes along with other American actions that Mr. Assad’s supporters and opponents take as proof Washington now believes that if Mr. Assad is ousted, there will be nothing to check the spreading chaos and extremism.”

Several experts including the Brookings Institution’s Kenneth Pollack have stated, [the Islamic State group] is not the problem; [the Islamic State group] is the symptom of the problem. The problem is the civil war in Syria and Iraq.” The relaxed stance against Assad despite the combative rhetoric from the US has damaged their credibility among rebel groups the US wishes to assuage. Jennifer Cafarella, Evans Hanson Fellow at the Institute for the Study of War, wrote in a report released late last year, “The continuation of Assad’s rule is a beacon for global jihadists and a direct driver of increasing local support to [Jabhat al-Nusra.]” Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) is al-Qaeda’s official entity in Syria.

To make matters worse, Cafarella also wrote that JN has capitalized on the ineffective Western strategy in Syria. “JN has benefitted from the lack of effective Western intervention in Syria. It has further benefitted from the radicalization of the Syrian opposition after September 2013, when the decision by the U.S. not to intervene in Syria demoralized large segments of the opposition.” JN is becoming a greater problem for the US, which to this point has only military struck the Islamic State group – JN’s former kin – and the Khorasan group, a unit of core al-Qaeda sent to Syria to embed with JN as to exploit the security vacuum and plan external operations presumably against the West.

There has also been much discussion regarding an authorization for use of military force (AUMF) pertaining to the current struggle named Combined Joint Task Force Inherent Resolve. I have previously written extensively on this (here, here, and here) but briefly, the president has maintained that he wishes to work with Congress on an AUMF several times in the past. Reasserting this desire does little to push the agenda forward. While both the administration and Congress are to blame for not passing an AUMF, clearly the Congress is passing the buck to the president saying the process works best when the administration sends draft language. The administration believes they have sufficient authority, despite asking for a formal authorization, so what do they care if Congress continues to deliberate?

“We’re upholding the principle that bigger nations can’t bully the small – by opposing Russian aggression, supporting Ukraine’s democracy, and reassuring our NATO allies. Last year, as we were doing the hard work of imposing sanctions along with our allies, some suggested that Mr. Putin’s aggression was a masterful display of strategy and strength. Well, today, it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated, with its economy in tatters.”

Lastly, Obama has also received criticism for his dealing with Russian aggression. His hands off military policy has worked to some degree. Aside from drones, which the president relies on heavily, he has also turned to a robust sanctions regime as an additional weapon. The Russian Ruble has plunged sending the Russian economy into a tailspin. However, this has not deterred Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin from continued aggression in Ukraine and reports last week indicated Russia may even annex part of Georgia. Putin has demonstrated that he is serious about perceived Western aggression and will let his economy suffer to combat it. NATO expansion could be a mistake – if Ukraine is admitted into NATO, it could lead to a new hot conflict between Russia and NATO allies. The president just ended two wars and is not intent on starting a new global conflict.

Overall, the president expressed that he will continue with much of the same policies for the remainder of his presidency. While on paper they appear to be sound, the realities are quite different. In an era of sequestration and limited resources, which Congress should address, the president must ensure that his policies are having resounding effects as to discontinue funneling billions of dollars towards endless and potentially unwinnable conflicts.