Top five foreign policy points in Obama's State of the Union speech

In his State of the Union message, President Obama laid out intentions to keep a 'small' residual force in Afghanistan, to veto any new Iran sanctions that Congress may approve, and to close the Guantánamo detention camp.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
President Obama gives his State of the Union address on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. While the speech focused mainly on domestic policy, the president also talked about Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, drones, and closing the US military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

President Obama may have focused on getting things done at home in his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, but he actually dedicated more time to foreign policy issues – at least 15 minutes of a speech that lasted a bit more than an hour – than to other hot topics like immigration, education, and health care.

He pledged to keep a “small” force of US troops in Afghanistan after the end of this year if the Afghan government wants it, promised to veto any new sanctions on Iran from Congress while international negotiations are under way on Tehran’s nuclear program, and repeated a call from his first inauguration in 2009 to finally close the detention facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, for terrorism suspects.   

Afghanistan. “America’s longest war will finally be over” by the close of this year, Mr. Obama said, referring to the end of the US-led NATO mission that began in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

But the president also said the US is ready to keep “a small force of Americans” in Afghanistan – if the Afghan government accepts a security agreement that, for months, has sat unsigned on the desk of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Obama offered no numbers to define what he means by “small force,” but White House officials have said any residual force is not likely to top 10,000 – and might be in Afghanistan for only a few years. Spelling out a narrow assignment for the US and allied force that would remain, Obama said it would have “two narrow missions”: continuing the training and advising of Afghan security forces, and pursuing counterterrorism operations against Al Qaeda.

But no matter whether US troops remain in Afghanistan after this year or not, Americans can expect to hear Obama’s version of “Mission accomplished” in the 2015 State of the Union address.

Iran. All we are saying is give diplomacy a chance.

Obama said he is “clear-eyed” – in other words, no rose-colored glasses – about the difficult road ahead for negotiations that world powers including the US are about to launch with Iran to find a final resolution to the threat of Iran’s nuclear program. But he said the talks offer the best and perhaps final chance to resolve “one of the leading security challenges of our time without the risks of war.”

As a result, the president vowed to “veto” – he used the word only once in his 65-minute speech – any new economic sanctions on Iran that he said could derail the talks. If the talks fail, Obama said he would be the first to impose new sanctions and to consider all other means for stopping Iran from ever acquiring a nuclear weapon.

Republicans fired back that they don't oppose negotiations with Iran, but that they do oppose the interim agreement with Iran, which they say puts too few limits on Iran’s nuclear program.

“No one opposes diplomacy with Iran,” said Rep. Ed Royce (R) of California, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in a statement after the speech. “What many in Congress do oppose is the deal he struck that lifts economic sanctions and guarantees that Iran can keep critical and dangerous nuclear technology,” he added. “That hardly makes us more secure.”

Drones. Obama said he has put “prudent limits” on the use of drones. Critics who note that Obama has ordered more drone strikes in more places than did George W. Bush are not buying it.

In his speech, the president made a case for continuing to strike terrorist targets with drones: They get the job done without resort to the boots on the ground that alienate local populations and become a recruiting tool for terrorist organizations.

“We must fight the battles that need to be fought, not those that terrorists prefer from us,” Obama said, referring to “large-scale deployments that drain our strength and may ultimately feed extremism.”

Instead, Obama said he is attacking terrorists with drones on which he has “imposed prudent limits.”

“We will not be safer if people abroad believe we strike within their countries without regard for the consequences,” he said.

Critics counter that drone strikes are as big a recruiting tool for terrorist organizations as any other. And they insist that whatever “limits" Obama has imposed on the use of drones have not stopped the civilian or so-called “residual” deaths that enrage local populations.

Guantánamo. Could this be the year?

Obama came into office in 2009 pledging to close the US military prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, but has been stymied by Republicans and some Democrats who have blocked measures – such as trials held in the US for detainees – that would have made closing the facility possible.

Renewing this goal, the president said that, with the Afghan war ending, “this needs to be the year Congress lifts the remaining restrictions on detainee transfers and we close the prison at Guantánamo Bay.”

Noting that Guantánamo remains a sore point for people around the world, Obama said, “We counter terrorism not just through intelligence and military action, but by remaining true to our constitutional ideals and setting an example for the rest of the world.”

The detainee population at “Gitmo” has fallen from a high of nearly 800 to 155 today – but reaching zero this year may still be out of Obama’s reach.  

Syria. Last year in his State of the Union address, Obama pledged to “keep the pressure on a Syrian regime that has murdered its own people.” This year the administration says President Bashar al-Assad is using “starvation tactics” against his own people – but, if anything, the Assad regime appears to be more secure than a year ago.

Obama says American diplomacy – coupled with his threat last August to use force against Mr. Assad – “is why Syria’s chemical weapons are being eliminated.” Beyond that, he said, the US “will continue to work with the international community to usher in the future the Syrian people deserve – a future free of dictatorship, terror, and fear.”

It would be nice to think Syria will be closer to that “future” a year from now. But with Assad looking stronger than a few months ago and with opposition forces locked in a fight with a rising Islamist extremist insurgency, few experts expect a turn for the better any time soon in Syria’s civil war.

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