In his State of the Union speech, President Obama talked domestic policy with a metaphorical spring in his step. But on foreign policy, his footing was far less assured. All too often, he seemed to be skating on thin ice.
To close the gap between upbeat rhetoric and murky reality, let’s annotate some of his assertions:
In Iraq and Syria, American leadership – including our military power – is stopping ISIL’s advance.
MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell, a seasoned pro, got it right the other night when she said that Obama’s claim of press against ISIL “is really hard to fathom.” Yes, America and its coalition partners have reportedly stopped the Islamic State army’s advance inside Iraq. But that’s not the case in Syria. Obama didn’t mention that ISIL remains strong – and is potentially expanding its reach, despite 800 U.S. air strikes – in the eastern Syria region that borders Iraq. Not bad for an army that Obama derided, just one year ago, as “a JV team.” (Full quote: “If a JV team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.”) Now Obama is telling us that defeating Kobe Bryant “will take time, it will require focus.”
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 (ISIL) terrorist group.
America has no patience for “another ground war,” not after George W. Bush’s monumental folly. But we shouldn’t be surprised if Americans wind up fighting on the ground (again). Last August, Obama sent nearly 2,400 troops back into Iraq, to train Iraqi soldiers (again). In that kind of mission, trainers sometimes assist trainees on the battlefield – which happened this week, when Canadian Special Forces trainers were reportedly drawn into a firefight with ISIL. And U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Martin Dempsey has never ruled out the option of committing our trainers to combat roles.
We’re also supporting a moderate opposition in Syria that can help us in this effort…
Obama left out the fact that we haven’t even begun to recruit, much less train, these “moderate” Syrian fighters. The plan is to find and train 5,400 fighters in year one; problem is, Joint Chiefs chairman Dempsey has said that we’ll need as many as 18,000 fighters to defeat ISIL inside Syria. So we’re way way behind on the time clock – because, in hindsight, Obama didn’t act sooner. And what’s a “moderate” anyway? A “moderate” is somebody who hates tyrannical Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. After we train them to fight ISIL, some may well decide to go fight Assad instead. Obama, in his speech, left out that part, too.
Tonight, for the first time since 9/11, our combat mission in Afghanistan is over….Instead of Americans patrolling the valleys of Afghanistan, we’ve trained their security forces, who’ve now taken the lead…
It all depends on how you define “combat.” We’re primarily training their security forces, but the administration has also reportedly stated that residual American forces still have the flex to (a) go after terrorists who try to use Afghanistan as a base of operations, and (b) go after Taliban fighters who are deemed to be a threat to U.S. personnel.
We will continue to hunt down terrorists and dismantle their networks…
For national security reasons, Obama can’t detail the successes and failures. So what we don’t know is whether or to what extent his administration has effectively hunted and dismantled. How serious, still, is the threat from al Qaeda offshoots in countries like Yemen, or on continents like Africa? He never said. And what about lone-wolf extremists? Does he include them in his definition of “networks?” In his speech, the total number of references to “Paris” was one.
Speaking of Yemen, have you seen the latest news? The country is currently imploding, in ways that (in the words of a conflict-resolution expert) “could make Yemen almost ungovernable,” and benefit al Qaeda’s local affiliate. But care to guess how times Obama, in his speech, mentioned the word “Yemen?” None.
Granted, any president would feel challenged by the brutal murk of this world; any president would try to spin his record in the best possible light. But it was no accident that only one-third of Obama’s speech was devoted to foreign policy. He preferred to stick with his strength – the domestic front, where his footing is firmest.