war on the rocks

The State of the Union: The President Struck the Right Tone

January 21, 2015

Editor’s Note: We asked two people to respond to President Obama’s State of the Union – one from each side of the aisle. Enjoy Shawn Brimley’s take and then check out what Bridge Colby has to say

I thought the president’s State of the Union address was well done. It was less a list of specific proposals than the SOTU often is (although there were some), and more an articulation of what is going well in America, along with the president’s broad vision for the way ahead. It was clear he was enjoying laying out this vision and talking about the very significant progress that is being made on some critical issues. And while I have some particular concerns that I will describe below, I think the president is right to use the bully pulpit to remind Americans about how far we’ve come since 2008, and that he contextualized foreign and defense policy issues properly within this important theme.

Michael Grunwald has a couple of good pieces talking about how much things have improved over the last six years. Specifically, he points out:

growth is up to five percent in the third quarter, unemployment down to 5.6 percent in December, the Dow Jones Industrial Average at an all-time high, soaring profits, low inflation… plunging gas prices, health care costs, crime rates, and child poverty rates, along with fewer abortions, teen pregnancies, foreclosures and uninsured Americans. Consumer confidence is skyrocketing. Five years after a devastating recession, the deficit has shrunk from an unsustainable 10 percent of GDP to an unthreatening three percent. We’re using less energy—and much more clean energy.

If one believes (as one should) that the U.S. economy is the engine of our national security, than I think the president deserves some real credit for his leadership. And while the contemporary debate may not credit him, I think historians will look back on his tenure quite fondly. Of course, plenty can happen between now and 2017, but it’s hard to argue that the macroeconomic landscape is anything other than a substantial improvement from what President Obama inherited.

Less clear is how the president’s national security and foreign policy legacy will appear with some temporal distance. But let’s review some of the bigger points that the president highlighted last night.

While a robust debate can and should be had regarding the wisdom of leaving Iraq without a substantial residual force or the pace of the drawdown in Afghanistan, I believe it was right and proper to find a way out of these wars. The president was right to reference the necessity to husband U.S. power: “Instead of getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East, we are leading a broad coalition, including Arab nations, to degrade and ultimately destroy this terrorist group.” That’s the right overall approach, though I would advocate sending more U.S. military forces to Iraq to embed in combat units and help call in precision airstrikes. That’s risky, but necessary given the need to buttress our Iraqi partners, many of whom are justifiably skeptical of U.S. staying power.

The president referenced his approach to Russian actions in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine by observing, “some suggested that Mr. Putin’s aggression was a masterful display of strategy and strength.  Well, today, it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated, with its economy in tatters.” I think this is largely correct, though the narrative would be quite different had the price of oil not been in free fall over the last couple of months. I think the most honest assessment would be that our diplomacy was clumsy in response to Russia’s aggression, but the contours of our policy today—diplomacy, sanctions, security assistance—are reasonably well positioned given Russia’s quickly eroding economy.

The president’s threat to veto any new Iran sanctions passed by Congress was also the right call. Six years ago, Iran was investing heavily in their nuclear program and ignoring calls from Washington and elsewhere to curtail such activities. Today the international community remains united and Iran has been forced, through smart sanctions and broader economic forces, to the negotiating table. It is smart to let these negotiations play out.

President Obama referenced the need to continue fighting terrorism; encouraged Congress to pass cybersecurity legislation and give the White House trade promotion authority to reach agreements with a number of states in Asia; highlighted the benefits of opening a new chapter with Cuba; and commended the positive work of the U.S. military and aid workers in combating Ebola in Africa. All these elements of his remarks were prudent but predictable.

I’ve always been a fan of President Obama’s references, in both this and many previous speeches, to the prudent use of American military power. An example from yesterday’s address:

When we make rash decisions, reacting to the headlines instead of using our heads; when the first response to a challenge is to send in our military – then we risk getting drawn into unnecessary conflicts, and neglect the broader strategy we need for a safer, more prosperous world.  That’s what our enemies want us to do.

Having served for a time at the White House, I can attest to the fact that these kinds of comments really do reflect his belief that, while we always have the option to use force, we need to be very disciplined regarding when and how to send U.S. military personnel into harm’s way. I think history will look fondly on President Obama’s caution and skepticism regarding the near-constant calls to send in the troops. If he had heeded all the calls to send in ground troops to various conflicts, we’d have many more American service members in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, and Ukraine.

I was disappointed that the only time the president mentioned the Pentagon was during his argument regarding climate change. He didn’t mention the devastating impacts of sequestration—the troubling decline of military readiness or the erosion of our military-technical edge. While I wasn’t expecting the president to dive into the weeds on defense strategy and spending, I think it would have been prudent to signal something of an agenda to ensure that the Department of Defense will be ready to protect and advance the nation’s interests. I hope and expect that Ash Carter will use the opportunity of his confirmation hearing next month to articulate that agenda.

I was also disappointed that the president didn’t reference the (hopefully) forthcoming National Security Strategy. Typically released every four years, I think the White House has completely failed to realize that a well-developed and detailed National Security Strategy—tied to the budget submission and with well-developed implementation guidance for the various national security agencies—can be a uniquely powerful tool to help advance a cohesive and lasting national security agenda. I am hopeful that such a strategy can be released in the coming weeks and used to help lock in some of the president’s national security priorities.

On balance I thought the speech was well done. While I don’t think any of the foreign policy or defense-related matters will make headlines, I think the president did well to place them in the broader context of a reasonably solid case that, in his words, “the shadow of crisis has passed, and the State of the Union in strong.”

 

Shawn Brimley is Executive Vice President and Director of Studies at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). He served in the Pentagon and White House during the Obama Administration’s first term.