State of disarray: Middle East policy in Obama's sixth State of the Union

Obama is expected to encourage unity against violent extremism sprouting from Syria and Iraq, warn against new Iran sanctions bill, and briefly mention Israel.

By
January 20, 2015 01:42
President Barack Obama.

President Barack Obama acknowledges applause before he delivers the State of the Union address in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Jan. 28, 2014.. (photo credit: OFFICIAL WHITE HOUSE PHOTO / PETE SOUZA)

WASHINGTON -- Foreign policy rarely dominates State of the Union addresses, and this year will be no different.

The president saves his most extensive remarks on foreign policy, instead, for a different venue: The United Nations General Assembly, during its annual high-level forum in September.

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But Americans pay little attention to that. For many in this country, the State of the Union is the only presidential address they will sit through all year. Take those speeches alone, and President Barack Obama's policies on the Middle East appear to have evolved not based on his own strategic terms, but on haphazard, violent shifts on the ground demanding live reactions from Washington.

Islamic extremism worldwide

The annual speech before a joint session of Congress will make brief mention of Iran, Israel, and an appeal to the American people for their support against the asymmetric foe they face in violent Islamic extremism.

Obama will repeat his call for a new international war on violent Islamist crime, loosely motivated by religion but broadly affecting Muslim communities worldwide. Since his last State of the Union, the capital cities of France, Australia and Canada have all experienced similar terror attacks that have gripped the imagination and fears of the American public.

"In Syria," the president said in his 2012 address, "I have no doubt that the Assad regime will soon discover that the forces of change cannot be reversed, and that human dignity cannot be denied."

Two years later in 2014, without mention of a rising Islamic State, Obama made three mentions of Syria— promising to work with the international community to deliver for Syrians a future "free of dictatorship, terror and fear," and chemical weapons.

While no hint of US military action in Iraq or Syria was on the horizon in last year's address, Obama did say al Qaeda remained a threat to the homeland, and that his government continued to work with Yemen and Iraq to "disrupt and disable" evolving terrorist networks.

"The fact is, that danger remains," he said in 2014. "While we have put al Qaeda’s core leadership on a path to defeat, the threat has evolved, as al-Qaida affiliates and other extremists take root in different parts of the world."

Iran and its nuclear program

On Iran, the president has remained largely consistent, praising a united international front against Tehran through 2011 and, over time, highlighting the need for a diplomatic solution over its nuclear program.

“If Iran’s leaders do not seize this opportunity, then I will be the first to call for more sanctions, and stand ready to exercise all options to make sure Iran does not build a nuclear weapon,” Obama said last year. “But if Iran’s leaders do seize the chance, then Iran could take an important step to rejoin the community of nations, and we will have resolved one of the leading security challenges of our time without the risks of war.”

Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, expects the president to repeat his 2014 call to veto any bill from Congress that might "derail" the nuclear talks.

"There's no question that it gets harder, the more time passes without a deal, for the administration to stave off additional 'turning of the screws' through new sanctions," Wittes said in an e-mail. "Fundamentally, the administration wants to hold the international coalition against Iran together as long as possible to keep Iran contained— whether a deal happens or not— and that means that they don't want the United States to be seen as the spoiler."

Last year, with a Democrat in control of the Senate floor schedule, the president's veto threat was heeded. This time, the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015 has been promised a vote by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) and will reach committee mark-up this week.

Israel and the Palestinians

In past years, the president has made only brief mention of his administration's support for peace between Israel and the Palestinians— if at all. In 2010 and 2011, Israel was not mentioned once; in 2009, 2012 and 2013, he repeated America's common refrain of support for Israel's security and its general pursuit of "lasting peace."

His most extensive comment on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a State of the Union was last year, amid talks brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry: Only two states for two peoples can deliver the peace that both parties seek, he said.

"As we speak, American diplomacy is supporting Israelis and Palestinians as they engage in difficult but necessary talks to end the conflict there," he said in 2014, "to achieve dignity and an independent state for Palestinians, and lasting peace and security for the State of Israel– a Jewish state that knows America will always be at their side."

Since then, talks have broken down definitively, war has shaken Gaza, and the Palestinian Authority has chosen to proceed with membership at the International Criminal Court.

"He might criticize the Palestinian move at the ICC," Wittes said, noting the "resoundingly critical" message the administration has thus far expressed over the PA decision. Beyond that, she added, "he'll want to emphasize the US view that a negotiated two-state solution remains the only stable, peaceful path for both sides."

An Obama doctrine


James Jeffrey, Obama's ambassador to Iraq from 2010 to 2012 and now a distinguished visiting fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, expects "boiler plate" foreign policy statements in the domestic policy-heavy speech.

Given the president's experience praising his own timely withdrawal of troops from Iraq, only to find himself reengaged in the battle, Jeffrey expects "reticence" in comments on the upcoming withdrawal of all troops from Afghanistan in 2016.

"He knows his current policy is a mistake," he said, "but has a hard time admitting it."

Over six years in office, delivering six of these addresses, Obama has avoided outlining broad organizing principles. Hints of a foreign policy doctrine for this president have come from other speeches: his 2013 UN General Assembly address, or his speech to graduating West Point cadets in May of last year.

But as the president enters his fourth quarter, and foreign policy begins to dominate his presidency, he has begun closing on initiatives that directly affect the American people.

"One area not clear is the degree he will 'hype' his 'new diplomacy'— opening to Cuba, goal of closing Guantanamo, changing basis of counter-terrorism from military to 'police,' looking for compromises with Iran, Russia and China," Jeffrey continued. "He is clearly proud of these new directions, but his people know they are not popular inside or especially outside America."


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