President Obama’s State of the Union address focused mostly on domestic issues. Yet how Obama talked about his foreign policy agenda underscores a crisis of purpose about U.S. engagement in the world.
To advance his national security agenda in the next three years, Obama should offer a more cohesive strategic argument for global engagement, one that more clearly articulates the values informing his policies. Economic challenges at home, including slow job growth, have made many Americans more selective about which global problems they think the United States should take on. A Pew poll released last month found that most Americans think we should mind our own business internationally.
It won’t be sufficient for the administration to state how the president intends to approach particular national security questions: He needs to articulate why they matter and what’s at stake. Obama has done this before; his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech made a compelling moral and strategic argument for U.S. engagement in the world.
To be sure, Obama outlined sound and pragmatic positions Tuesday on most of the leading foreign policy questions of the day. He made a measured case for more time to pursue nuclear talks with Iran without overselling the prospects for success. He also sketched out how his administration is addressing questions about National Security Agency surveillance and drone strikes while remaining vigilant to the threats posed by al-Qaida and its affiliates.
But missing was the connective tissue between the different elements of his foreign policy agenda. It sounded like a “to do” list of chores in search of a broader argument for why these policy proposals matter. The lack of an overarching worldview is partly why Obama made only passing mention of the Syria conflict and said nothing about the complicated changes in Egypt. It is important that Obama used his stirring recognition of Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg to rally support for our veterans — but it’s not clear what the president would like to see as the end result of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars in which Remsburg served.