Care to guess how much space was devoted to foreign policy in President Obama’s second Inaugural Address? Two paragraphs.
That was somewhat surprising. Second-term presidents often shift their focus to foreign policy, especially after most of their domestic proposals turn up DOA in Congress. The lawmakers, who typically dismiss a second-termer as a lame duck, have far less leverage over how that lame duck operates abroad. I suspect this pattern will be no different for Obama.
And yet, here’s the sum total of what he said about American policy abroad:
We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war. Our brave men and women in uniform, tempered by the flames of battle, are unmatched in skill and courage. Our citizens, seared by the memory of those we have lost, know too well the price that is paid for liberty. The knowledge of their sacrifice will keep us forever vigilant against those who would do us harm. But we are also heirs to those who won the peace and not just the war, who turned sworn enemies into the surest of friends, and we must carry those lessons into this time as well.
We will defend our people and uphold our values through strength of arms and rule of law. We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully – not because we are naïve about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear. America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe; and we will renew those institutions that extend our capacity to manage crisis abroad, for no one has a greater stake in a peaceful world than its most powerful nation. We will support democracy from Asia to Africa; from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom. And we must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice – not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes: tolerance and opportunity; human dignity and justice.
Granted, the 2012 election was fought mostly on the domestic front; no surprise there, given the sluggish economy, and the fact that most Americans at this point could give a fig about Iraq or Afghanistan. But the election is over. Wars and crises persist. In the words of the 19th-century poet William Wordsworth, “the world is too much with us,” and it requires our attention – certainly more than two paragraphs worth. Our only choice is to parse what Obama gave us.
Obama’s first sentence — “enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war” — was clearly a rebuke to the neoconservatives who dominated the George W. Bush foreign policy team (and heavily populated the Mitt Romney team), who marched us into the wrong war after 9/11, at great human and economic cost. Obama’s seventh sentence underscored the rebuke: “We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully – not because we are naïve about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.”
Iran was not mentioned in the speech, but those passages can easily be read as an affirmation of the belief – widely held within the administration, and among the Joint Chiefs of Staff – that a bombing raid on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be reckless and foolhardy. Those passages also appear to reflect the beliefs of Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel, who says that carrot-and-stick diplomacy with Iran would be far more workable than military action. The implicit Obama message to neocons: “You want to come after Hagel? Make my day.”
The eighth sentence — “America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe; and we will renew those institutions that extend our capacity to manage crisis abroad, for no one has a greater stake in a peaceful world than its most powerful nation” – restates Obama’s belief that America should not go it alone. Unilateral adventurism is out; sharing the burden with the U.N., NATO, and the European Union is in. Libya was not mentioned in the speech, but it was a strong western alliance that intervened and supported the rebels who toppled Gadhafi.
But the two foreign policy paragraphs ultimately leave us with more questions than answers. There was no mention of terrorism, no hint of whether Obama believes we have the upper hand against al Qaeda and its affiliates, or whether that threat is indeed spreading to more countries in tinderbox regions. There was no hint of whether “engagement” works with fanatics, or whether we can beat them in the long run by promoting ourselves as the good guys, as “a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized.”
And while it’s laudable to declare that “America will remain the anchor of strong alliances,” through we can “extend our capacity to manage crisis abroad,” Obama failed to mention the bloodbath in Syria. His “strong alliances” have opted not to intervene in a civil war that has already killed an estimated 60,000 people, most of them civilians. I’m not necessarily suggesting that the west should have militarily intervened. The risks of doing so may well have trumped the rewards; for starters, we would’ve risked alienating Russia, a Syria ally whom we’ve enlisted to keep the heat on Iran’s nuclear program. In other words, Obama’s aforementioned “strong alliances” are not always effective in helping us to “manage crisis abroad.” Sometimes they work (Libya), and sometimes they opt not to try (Syria). Obama omitted that necessary qualifier.
Undoubtedly, during the next four years, new foreign crises will seriously test the credos that Obama sketched in his address. We may come to wish that he had prepared us with more than two paragraphs.
My opening sentence here yesterday: “Barack Obama’s second Inaugural Address was a tightly focused pitch for patriotic progressivism…”
Center-right columnist David Brooks’ opening paragraph today: “The best Inaugural Addresses make an argument for something. President Obama’s second one, which surely has to rank among the best of the past half-century, makes an argument for a pragmatic and patriotic progressivism.”
Brooks eloquently refuted Obama’s argument, which is fine by me. I was just glad to see some bipartisanship on terminology.
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