Analysis: Obama warns Americans to prepare for tough future

US president's first address to Congress focuses on economy, neglects foreign affairs.

Barack Obama 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Barack Obama 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Of the nearly one hour that US President Barack Obama dedicated to detailing the issues facing the nation during his first address to Congress Tuesday night, only a few short minutes were devoted to foreign policy. None of them was used for Iran. As The New York Times noted on Wednesday, Obama's speech was technically not a State of the Union address, and therefore he was spared from having to utter the traditional line, "The state of union is strong," since, the paper pointed out, "frankly, it isn't." Accordingly, Obama focused on the economic crisis, urging Americans to both prepare for a difficult future as well as continue to have faith that the country will overcome the current challenges. He also announced ambitious plans on the domestic front, including reforming health care, creating greater energy efficiency and improving education. But foreign affairs got short shrift, with Europe, Russia, China and Japan barely noted or excluded entirely. And where George W. Bush once made foreign threats the centerpiece of his state of the union, famously branding Iran an element of the "axis of evil," the Islamic Republic wasn't mentioned once. The omission might be in part calculated to tamp down rhetoric and animosity in a sign of departure from the previous administration and in preparation for talks with Teheran. But Iran's exclusion doesn't sit well with many pro-Israel advocates who worry just where Iran fits in the priority list. And unlike other chronic menaces, the ticking time bomb of Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons makes urgency that much more relevant. At the same time, Obama's spareness on international issues heightened the primacy of those he did choose to mention. And among them was the need for Israeli-Palestinian peace. When pointing to his diplomatic efforts one month into his administration, Obama noted, "To seek progress toward a secure and lasting peace between Israel and her neighbors, we have appointed an envoy to sustain our effort." That emphasis was welcomed Tuesday night by some of Israel's more dovish backers, with Americans for Peace Now, for one, putting out a statement praising "the president's commitment to work for secure and lasting peace between Israel and its neighbors" and his "refreshing approach to the region, emphasizing the role of diplomacy," calling it "a valuable opportunity for those seeking Mideast peace, stability and prosperity." But other pro-Israel activists worry that Obama has placed too much emphasis on a deal unlikely to materialize and that the administration views solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as central to fixing other regional woes, a premise many find flawed and distracting from greater perils. Obama also referred to the challenges in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and made clear that he would soon announce a new policy there that "responsibly ends this war." Reports Wednesday suggested that Obama was likely to call this week for all combat troops to be out of Iraq by August 2010, three months later than he promised during his presidential campaign. He also reiterated another campaign pledge of more active engagement, saying, "We know that America cannot meet the threats of this century alone, but the world cannot meet them without America. We cannot shun the negotiating table, nor ignore the foes or forces that could do us harm." He pointed to nuclear proliferation among the forces for harm, the closest he came to mentioning Iran's nuclear ambitions. In another sign of the administration's interest in engagement, the US State Department confirmed Wednesday that Syrian Ambassador Imad Mustafa would be holding a rare meeting with Acting Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs Jeffrey Feltman Thursday. The State Department press office pointed to "key differences" between the countries, including "concerns about Syria's support to terrorist groups and networks, Syria's acquisition of nuclear and non-conventional weaponry, interference in Lebanon and worsening human rights situation." But it also said the meeting "is an opportunity to use dialogue to discuss these concerns."