Obama's State of the Union address: foreign policy highlights

Oil and Iraq – and Iran, about which Obama issued a rare red line in his largely domestically focused speech. 

Rick Wilking/AP
US Secretary of State John Kerry, l., waited with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif before a meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, last week. President Obama drew a rare foreign policy red line in his State of the Union speech, saying that Congress should not push for new sanctions on Iran.

The majority of President Obama's State of the Union address last night was focused on domestic issues. But he didn't entirely shy away from his much-criticized efforts abroad. There were some clear gaps: Variants of "democracy" were mentioned three times in relation to Afghanistan, Ukraine, and Cuba, but America's difficult relations in regard to Egypt and Saudi Arabia weren't mentioned once. Nevertheless, the president touched on a number of foreign policy areas. In order: 


Energy isn't exactly a foreign policy issue – except it's at the heart of America's biggest concerns abroad. "Energy independence" has been a topic of much tussling since before Mr. Obama took office. That phrase wasn't mentioned, but Obama appeared to relish the moment at the top of his speech, when he declared that the US is "as free from the grip of foreign oil as we've been in almost 30 years." 

And he wasn't wrong. A president whose challengers in both his presidential races called him an enemy of the US petroleum industry has presided over an unprecedented boom in US oil and gas production. The oil and gas being pumped out of places like the Bakken formation in North Dakota in recent years have played an important role in driving crude oil, for instance, below $50 a barrel, and have weakened American adversaries like Russia and Iran (both highly oil-dependent economies).

Obama practically crowed:

We believed we could reduce our dependence on foreign oil and protect our planet. And today, America is No. 1 in oil and gas. America is No. 1 in wind power. Every three weeks, we bring online as much solar power as we did in all of 2008. And thanks to lower gas prices and higher fuel standards, the typical family this year should save $750 at the pump.

Later in his speech, he did refer indirectly to the controversial Keystone pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast. "Let’s set our sights higher than a single oil pipeline," he said, alluding to his past veto threat on the issue without making it again.

Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan

The president took on the two wars he inherited, and the war in Syria that the US has gotten increasingly involved in over the past two years. He began by speaking of 15,000 US soldiers left in Iraq and Afghanistan, as against 180,000 a few years after he took office. Iraq and Syria received more attention than Afghanistan.

He argued for his "light footprint" approach in two of the conflicts. "In Iraq and Syria, American leadership — including our military power — is stopping ISIL’s advance," he said, using his administration's preferred acronym for the self-described Islamic State, the Sunni jihadi group spawned by Al Qaeda in Iraq that has seized territory in both countries. "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," he said.

Nevertheless, more than 80 percent of airstrikes against the Islamic State by foreign powers have been carried out by the US, and the effort has de facto put the US on the side of the regime of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, a name that did not come up in Obama's speech. He did speak of the "moderate opposition" that the US rhetorically supports in Syria, while ignoring its battlefield failure and weaknesses. He asked Congress to pass "a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL," a political measure that will spread the credit and the blame for his Syria policy, but would probably have little impact on US actions in the region.

He also glossed the fact that he's sent troops back to Iraq, with Baghdad at risk of falling to Islamic State. 

Obama did not mention that Afghanistan's future – absent infusions of US soldiers and money – looks dicey.


The president mentioned Russia, which has annexed parts of the Ukraine and appears intent on annexing more, just twice in his speech. In full:

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.

Certainly, US-led sanctions, coupled with the collapse of global oil prices, put Mr. Putin in a more difficult position. But the president has no new proposal here beyond "staying the course." Meanwhile, Russian-supported separatists fought pitched battles around the airport in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk yesterday, that the Washington Post called "some of the worst fighting between government troops and pro-Russian separatists since last summer."


Perhaps one of the boldest foreign policy moves Obama has made – a move toward normalization of relations with Cuba – was given just a paragraph in the president's speech:

In Cuba, we are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date. When what you’re doing doesn’t work for fifty years, it’s time to try something new. Our shift in Cuba policy has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere; removes a phony excuse for restrictions in Cuba; stands up for democratic values; and extends the hand of friendship to the Cuban people. And this year, Congress should begin the work of ending the embargo. As His Holiness, Pope Francis, has said, diplomacy is the work of “small steps.” These small steps have added up to new hope for the future in Cuba. And after years in prison, we’re overjoyed that Alan Gross is back where he belongs. Welcome home, Alan.

Mr. Gross was a USAID contractor hired to provide information technology to community groups in Cuba. Arrested in Cuba in 2009, he was released in December in a prisoner swap for Cuban agents arrested and held in the US since 1998, the first concrete evidence of the US-Cuban thaw.


Perhaps the highest-stakes negotiation for the Obama administration – the highest payoffs, the highest risks – is its effort to get Iran to substantially curtail its nuclear program, which the US says could lead to the development of a nuclear weapon there. Israel and its friends in Congress have been highly critical of Obama, saying negotiations with the Islamic Republic only help Iran get closer to a nuclear bomb. Iran says it's not interested in a weapon, and Obama's people say sanctions and diplomacy are working.

Obama referred to reductions in "nuclear material" in Iran, which is true, and said that "between now and this spring, we have a chance to negotiate a comprehensive agreement that prevents a nuclear-armed Iran; secures America and our allies — including Israel – while avoiding yet another Middle East conflict." That last bit refers to the possibility of war with Iran over its program. 

Iran is in its weakest position in years, due to the collapse in oil prices that looks set to persist for months to come. And Obama – in a rare, specific red line – pushed back on efforts by congressional hawks to pile new sanctions on Iran, something the White House thinks could lead Iran to decide its only course is defiance. 

"New sanctions passed by this Congress, at this moment in time, will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails — alienating America from its allies and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again. It doesn’t make sense. That is why I will veto any new sanctions bill that threatens to undo this progress. The American people expect us to only go to war as a last resort, and I intend to stay true to that wisdom."

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