The US President Barack Obama’s one hour, sixteen-minute State of the Union address in Washington on Tuesday was largely devoted to illustrating a single point, namely, that 2014 can be a «breakthrough year» for the American economy. Obama sounded acutely self-conscious that his presidency has hit the bumps. The latest CNN poll showed him at a low 43% approval rating.
Unsurprisingly, foreign policy issues took a back seat. Although Obama pointedly touched on the Iran problem and the Middle East, US’s ‘rebalance’ to Asia and the turmoil in Ukraine, the details were skimpy…
One major announcement he made was that the prison at Guantanamo Bay ought to be closed within the year, but, again, this ultimately turns out to be the reiteration of an intention which is as old as Obama’s five-year old presidency, and he didn’t give any clue how he proposed to get the «remaining restrictions on detainee transfers» removed by a recalcitrant Congress, which has been in no mood to cooperate with him on any issue.
Obama did not even once use the term ‘exceptionalism’, but instead there has been a swagger, contrived or spontaneous, and he did expound ideas that in his opinion made America truly exceptional. He said, «From Tunisia to Burma, we’re supporting those who are willing to do the hard work of building democracy. In Ukraine, we stand for the principle that all people have the right to express themselves freely and peacefully and to have a say in their country’s future.»
Four issues that Obama discussed – Iran, Syria, Afghanistan and the ‘pivot’ to Asia – need to be put in perspective. As regards Iran, Obama repeated his rejection of any more sanctions being legislated against Iran, whilst the negotiations are going on regarding the nuclear problem. He repeated that he would exercise his presidential prerogative to veto any such legislation.
Obama claimed once again that the Geneva agreement meant rolling back «parts» of Iran’s nuclear program, although Tehran has openly rubbished such an interpretation. Clearly, Obama was addressing the lawmakers on Capitol Hill and the US domestic opinion. He continued to insist that he «stands ready to exercise all options to make sure Iran does not build a nuclear weapon.»
Obama repeated his skepticism about the success of his engagement policy toward Iran, which again is more a hedge, because «we’re [US] clear about the mistrust between our nations, mistrust that cannot be wished away.» In their totality, Obama’s remarks on Iran contained no new elements. What stood out from the fact that it was on Iran that he spoke at some length in his speech, is the highest importance he attaches in the year ahead to the resolution of «one of the leading security challenges of our time without the risks of war.»
Obama’s remark on Syria was, in comparison, curt and wrapped up in a couple of sentences. The interesting part is that it came hot on the heels of the Geneva 2 conference last week. Surely, it does cause some uneasiness that Obama’s stress was the US’ continued «support» for the non-jihadi rebel forces. He did not say a word about the peace talks in Geneva. He left things suspended in the air by saying 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.»
But then, this has been how all along the regime-change agenda has been propagandistically presented by the so-called ‘Friends of Syria’ grouping, which includes the US. A question arises: Is the Obama administration considering a revving up of the support for the rebel fighters in Syria following the impasse at Geneva 2?
On Afghanistan, Obama made it clear there is no going back on his decision on troop withdrawal. He stressed that the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan signified «America’s longest war will finally be over.» Obama seemed unsure of the US-Afghan Bilateral Security Agreement coming through, by saying if it is signed, a «small force» will remain in Afghanistan «to carry out two narrow missions,» namely, training and assisting the Afghan forces and, secondly, for undertaking counterterrorism operations against «any remnants of al-Qaeda.» He didn’t refer to the Taliban at all.
The remarks on Syria, Afghanistan and the al-Qaeda problem, put together, arguably, the contours of a ‘Obama doctrine’ emerges. He himself underscored the following:
• The deployment of US forces in conflict situations should be only if «it is truly necessary.»
• The US should avoid getting «mired in open-ended conflicts.»
• Large-scale US troop deployments abroad will «drain our strength and may ultimately feed extremism.»
• Counterterrorist operations must be active and aggressive but should be through «targeted efforts» and by building the capacity of the US’ foreign partners.
• «America must move off a permanent war footing.»
Curiously, however, the Obama doctrine doesn’t apply to the US’ ‘rebalance’ strategy in Asia. He asserted, «we will continue to focus on the Asia-Pacific, where we support our allies, shape a future of greater security and prosperity.» Yet, the ‘pivot’ to Asia is a strategic reset necessitating the deployment of 60 percent of the US’ fleet in the Pacific, and equipping the Pacific Command with the most cutting-edge capabilities by 2020.
Put differently, America is indeed gearing up on a «permanent war footing» in the Asia-Pacific. The principal purpose of the rebalance strategy is to guarantee that US’ hegemony in Asia-Pacific remains unchallenged through the 21st century. The US is inserting itself into China’s problems and disputes with its neighbors by posing as a neutral party but de facto becoming a participant. In fact, the US’ military presence has already complicated the Asia-Pacific security scenario.
In sum, the disconcerting part of Obama’s State of the Union address is that he was grandstanding. For example, he couldn’t resist taking a swipe at Russia by remarking that when Team USA «marches the red, white and blue into the Olympic stadium» at Sochi next week and «brings home the gold,» it will be an expression of the US’ commitment to the «inherent dignity and equality of every human being, regardless of race or religion, creed or sexual orientation».
At the end of the day, Obama could not help reverting to American exceptionalism. He said, «My fellow Americans, no other country in the world does what we do. On every issue, the world turns to us, not simply because of the size of our economy or our military might but because of the ideals we stand for and the burdens we bear to advance them.» Of course, this is sheer humbug. Such feisty proclamations prompted a CNN commentator to compare Obama’s state of the Union address to a «Rorschach of sorts» – a reference to the inkblot test associated with the Swiss psychologist Hermann Rorschach, which helps examine a person’s personality characteristics and emotional functioning and to detect underlying thought disorder where patients are reluctant to describe their thinking processes openly.