Obama’s Foreign Entanglements
The president didn’t offer a foreign-policy blueprint. It was more of a sketch.
Photo by Tony Karumba/AFP/GettyImages
The line in President Obama’s State of the Union Address that drew the loudest applause—that prompted a standing ovation from both sides of the aisle—was his pledge that, by the end of next year, “Our war in Afghanistan will be over.”
Note the wording: our war in Afghanistan, not the war, which will still be waged, but not by us, at least not directly or in large numbers. By this time in 2014, U.S. troop levels there will be cut by half—from the current 66,000 to 32,000—and their mission will be to train the Afghan army to fight, not to fight it ourselves, except for Special Forces and pilots, mainly drone pilots, mounting raids and air strikes on terrorists near the border.
This is the new American way of war: “leading from behind” with smart bombs, surveillance, and logistical support in Libya and Mali; or “advising and assisting” local armies waging their own fights against insurgents in Yemen and Uganda—but decidedly not sending tens of thousands of U.S. troops to launch an invasion or to rebuild societies afterward. In other words, no more Afghanistans. (As for Iraq, it's so forgotten he didn't even deign to mention it.) And almost everyone in the House chamber rose in what seemed to be agreement—in part because everyone knew that the constituents at home were nodding in agreement, too.
So it was only natural that President Obama barely mentioned foreign and defense policy until 54 minutes after he walked into the chamber—and even drew more of a vague sketch than a policy.
“America’s commitment to a unified and sovereign Afghanistan will endure,” he said, though it’s unclear how. The North Koreans’ recent nuclear test “will only isolate them further,” though the Pyongyang regime can’t be isolated any further than they are without a sharp shift in China’s policy (which is unlikely). Obama noted that, earlier in the day, he’d signed an executive order on cyber-security, an interesting and potentially important first step, but it’s an obscure issue, and he made no effort to explain it. These are tasks perhaps for another day.
He spoke for barely 10 minutes on foreign policy, then moved on to the night’s most compelling themes: voting rights, gun control, and the meaning of citizenship. “Gabby Giffords deserves a vote! The families of Newtown deserve a vote! The families of Aurora deserve a vote”—this, and not some exhortation to fight foes in distant lands, will be the passage remembered, the stirring call to action, from this speech.
And so it should be, after a decade of war-weariness and so little to show for it.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.