President Barack Obama’s second State of the Union Address was almost entirely focused on domestic issues. This was appropriate considering the magnitude of social, economic and moral problems America is facing, and the attendant absurdity of pursuing grand global themes for as long as those problems remain unresolved.
The clichés and the rhetoric were kitchy and old-fashinedly quaint. At least Obama did not give us any of his predecessor’s neocon-infested world-historical drivel (“History has called America and our allies to action, and it is both our responsibility and our privilege to fight freedom’s fight… America will always stand firm for the non-negotiable demands of human dignity… We’ve come to know truths that we will never question: Evil is real, and it must be opposed.”) What we have instead is a chief executive visibly reluctant to engage in foreign dragon-slaying missions. An inoffensive Latin American tour is on the cards instead, exactly the sort of stuff the President should do when he decides to do nothing.
Obama mentioned the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan—two doomed wars inherited from his predecessor—and steered clear of the old caveat about “getting the job done.” No “job” is ever “done” by a non-Muslim power in the Islamic heartland, which Iraq illustrates today, and which Afghanistan has proven on four occasions over the past 175-odd years. That both will revert to their nasty and brutish Hobbesian-Mohammedan ways once the last GI departs is obvious. Judging by his speech Obama knows this. His en-passant pledge that the U.S. “stands with the people of Tunisia” is reassuringly meaningless: presumably the “standing” will continue regardless of whether the Islamists take over, which is likely, or the country turns into a beacon of Western-style democracy in North Africa, which is not.
Not a single word about the Arab-Israeli conflict in the State of the Union is excellent news. For the moment the best U.S. policy in the Middle East is passivity. Over the next year or two Washington should leave Israel and its Arab neighbors to their own devices. We are further away from a comprehensive settlement than at any time since Oslo two decades ago. Prime Minister Netanyahu is not in a mood to offer anything to the Palestinians, and they are not in a position to insist on anything. As I wrote in Chronicles five months ago, those Americans who contend that the U.S. has the moral obligation to bring an end to the conflict should recognize that, like in many other national, religious and ethnic conflicts around the world, it will go on if both sides are willing to pay the costs of what they regard as a just and necessary fight: “No outside deus-ex-machina can save the parties from themselves. Not unlike other wars, the Arab-Israeli war will end when both sides grow weary of it and conclude that their interests would be better served at the negotiating table, with the outcome of such negotiations reflecting the balance of power between them.”
Since the parties in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute are unable or unwilling to do so today, Obama is right to stay aloof. Only when both sides are exhausted by the conflict and ready to make peace should the United States mediate a settlement. Only then some reference to the U.S. effort deserves to be made in the State of the Union address. This was not one such occasion.
Iran and North Korea were mentioned only in passim, which is also excellent news. On Iran the neocons have been trying long and hard to impose their agenda on a reluctant President, and judging by his perfunctory reference to the issue they have not succeeded. If and when the regional nuclear menace from Iran becomes real, those who have reason to feel threatened by it should act to curtail it or eliminate it as they deem fit. The riddle of Iran’s nuclear intentions is not a vital national security issue for the U.S.
As for North Korea, American disengagement from the peninsula is long overdue. The best and safest way to accomplish it is to leave the tactical and short-range nuclear arsenal behind, thus enabling South Korea to deal with Comrade Kim on its own. Obama may not subscribe to this view, but by wisely ignoring Pyongyang in his purview he has at least allowed for the possibility that he does.
My only problem with Obama’s speech was the millenerian phrase “winning the future.” The future is not there to be won or lost. Those who believe otherwise end up singing “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” and slaughtering millions. Obama is not in that league. On other fronts he is a failure and a menace, but on world affairs he is the least bad President we’ve had for a generation.