In President Obama’s State of the Union speech Tuesday, he asked the nation to be patient with his efforts to defeat the forces of Islamist extremism. For a reluctant war president, it was an acknowledgement that America almost certainly will remain at war when he leaves office two years from now.
But it was also a renewed statement of a foreign policy approach that Mr. Obama has adhered to since taking office. He emphasized that his effort to cobble together a coalition of partners to help “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State would prevent the United States from being “dragged into another ground war in the Middle East.”
The comment underscores how a president tagged as “leading from behind” – even from within his own White House – foresees tackling the major foreign policy challenges of his final years. From the battle with IS to Iran's nuclear program to an embrace of international trade deals, Obama's clear signal from the State of the Union is that cooperation with partners – and even with longtime adversaries, as in the case of Cuba – will continue to trump a rush to confrontation.
On the fight with Islamist extremism, Obama is asking Congress formally to authorize military action against IS “to show the world that we [in the US] are united in this mission.”
Obama claims that the US is “leading a broad coalition, including Arab nations,” in the fight against IS forces, but the reality is that the US has carried out about four-fifths of the airstrikes in Syria and Iraq since August. The US also is by far the biggest bankroller of the campaign, having spent more than $1 billion on the effort, according to the Pentagon.
While Obama may remain adamant about not putting ground troops in Syria, the disintegration of Iraqi security forces since the US withdrawal in 2011 – and IS’s takeover of about a third of the country – has forced a president proud of his Iraq wind-down to reverse course and send about 1,500 troops to train and support the military. Obama has authorized a doubling of US forces on the ground in Iraq to 3,000, but he insists they will be limited to training and advising and will not return to combat.
Iran and the outcome of the international nuclear talks set to conclude by the end of June are likely to dominate much of Obama's foreign policy attention. Success or failure in preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon may go a long way in determining Obama’s legacy.
Iran seems likely to provide some foreign-policy high drama in the coming months. Congress is on the verge of approving a new Iran sanctions bill – legislation the president vowed again Tuesday night to veto if it reaches his desk.
Many Republican and some Democratic senators scoff at the notion that Iran would walk away from talks simply as a result of American legislation that imposes new sanctions only if the talks fail to result in a deal by June 30. If anything, congressional supporters see their bill as an “insurance policy” to keep Tehran serious about negotiating in the weeks ahead.
Obama argues that an interim agreement with Iran rules out any new sanctions while the talks are ongoing. But his veto threat is also based on his desire to keep united the international front that has formed against an Iranian bomb. Moreover, he asserts that unilateral action now would leave the US alone if the talks fail and military action becomes the only option.
Russia and Ukraine
Obama summed up his foreign policy approach in a brief State of the Union reference to the conflict in Ukraine: a US-led diplomatic effort will win out over big-power bullying and aggression.
“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,” Obama said. “Well, today,” he added, it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated, with its economy in tatters.”
While that may be, Russia has not been compelled to reverse its annexation of Crimea. And with the cease-fire between Ukrainian forces and separatists looking dead, the Ukraine crisis appears on the verge of moving back up on Obama’s agenda.
Trade and the Asian-Pacific
One area where the president and Republicans appear to agree is on promotion of international trade.
Obama came into office critical of free-trade deals he said displaced American workers and were weak on environmental and labor standards. But Obama, who embraced the so-called “Asia pivot” – rebalancing of US interests from the Middle East to the Asian-Pacific – has completed a “pivot” of his own toward favoring international trade deals.
Obama now talks up the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) currently being negotiated as not just a trade deal, but as a means of advancing America’s broader presence in the region.
Obama’s push for normalized relations with Cuba after more than a half-century of antagonism will figure high in the president’s foreign-policy legacy and define his preference for diplomacy and dialogue over confrontation and unilateral action.
Reestablishing full diplomatic ties with Cuba may seem like a bilateral matter. But Obama had made clear in explaining his decision to normalize relations that he sees the move in the regional context and expects closer cooperation with America’s Latin neighbors as one result.
“Our shift in Cuba policy has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere,” Obama said in laying out the benefits he sees from engaging rather than isolating Cuba.
Now that the US is welcoming Cuba into the Western Hemisphere’s community of nations, Obama says he also expects the region’s democracies to join the US in pressing Cuba towards democratic reforms and respect of human rights.
In that sense Obama’s Cuba policy will become another test of a foreign policy approach that promotes cooperation and partnerships over coercion and bold unilateral moves.