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State of the Union on Foreign Policy: Hardly an After-Thought

Though the president failed to mention the words “foreign policy” until 80 percent of his speech lay in the rearview mirror, it very much served as the underpinning of the entire exercise.

“Winning the Future”, after all, is inherently a call to rise against two competitors: domestic political obstacles that restrain American growth and prosperity, and those nations who seek to best the American model of democratic free enterprise. In that sense, the best line of his speech–“We do big things”–was probably the most forceful testament to American greatness and world leadership of the Obama presidency. It was an effective reminder that despite the impasses our politics so routinely produce that our calling is at the head of the world’s pack, and for a damn good reason.

He used the buttress of China and India to raise the spectre of international competition, even though the notion of “competing” with with New Delhi and Beijing hardly boils down a zero-sum game.  But to gird Americans to tackle the huge tasks in their way, the frame was apt–other big countries are succeeding, and their models are sub-optimal.  We can be the best, he said, even though our democracy is messy.

Pundits may critique the speech for its lack of specific initiatives, that wasn’t really the point. Lofty rhetoric and inspirational moments fall well within the president’s balliwick, particularly at a political moment when a statement of first principles establishes the possibility of buy-in from erstwhile opponents. The specifics of regulatory reform, for example, may draw knee-jerk heckles from conservatives, but the idea of political cooperation that unleashes the power of American entrepreneurship and reestablishes American economic might on the world’s stage?  That’s rhetoric to start a conversation around.

When President Obama did get down to the foreign policy details, it was a mixed bag. Some, like Josh Rogin over at The Cable, took a cynical bent and criticized the president for glossing over some of the, er, finer details. Fair enough — I might disagree with some of Rogin’s “translations”, but he underlying point is that all isn’t going quite as swimmingly in the world of foreign policy as Obama makes it appear, and that’s about right.  Even if Obama’s foreign policy deserves, in broad strokes, a good amount of praise.

I wanted Obama to draw more of a line in the sand on foreign aid funding. With House Republicans set to eviscerate the foreign assistance line item in the federal budget, Obama could have used the moment to explain that if America is to remain numero uno in the world, it can’t retreat into isolationism. An America engaged with the world protects our security interests and advances our values, and engagement must be properly resourced.

And to conclude, I was pleasantly surprised at Obama’s forceful language on Tunisia and by subtle implication, the nascent rumblings in Egypt: “[T]he United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people.”

Sure, platitudes come easy after a dictator has fallen, and Egyptians — as embodied in the “all people” tacked on the end — certainly wish Obama had been more direct. But in fitting with what I’ve said above, rhetoric is important and falls squarely within the president’s job-description.

Now let’s hope he has begun the process of cajoling our divided government into action.


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