President Obama delivered his final State of the Union address last night. While many topics seemed ripe for political high drama, there were also quite a few important-to-note competencies and inspirational moments in regards to the places America has been and is going.
The greatest takeaway from this year’s SOTU is captured in the following:
“And the international system we built after World War II is now struggling to keep pace with this new reality. In today’s world, we’re threatened less by evil empires and more by failing states. The Middle East is going through a transformation that will play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia. Economic headwinds are blowing in from a Chinese economy that is in significant transition. Even as their economy severely contracts, Russia is pouring resources in to prop up Ukraine and Syria, client states that they saw slipping away from their orbit. And the international system we built after World War II is now struggling to keep pace with this new reality.”
The president’s statement recognizes that things are not going as well as they used to. The rules of the game have changed, as have the players. In effect, the retained element of order created in the aftermath of World War II—the once powerful traditions and unity of old alliances—is faltering. That failure can in part be attributed to the limited endurance of the post-World War II international system, a system now cursed with unresolved efforts to institute cohesion in the bureaucratic systems that drive it.
The nations that were initially selected, and the groups recognized for that international system, have now shifted balance to those previously not considered, or were then unheard of. Here, President Obama has rightfully recognized that America has to lead the way for reform. This is where maintenance of order and balance is required, and a new conception of the realities of the international system must be addressed, while not falling back upon old systems or adopting harshly coercive methods. The time of patronizing the antiquated post-World War II international system is overdue. The heritage of it is offering nothing of value besides unrelenting bureaucracy without the mechanisms of continuity, initiative, referendum, or recall, for the contemporary or new reality of the rational international system of affairs and its respected publics.
The president set out to ease concerns regarding the state of the national identity of many Americans, who are floating with their heads just above or directly below surface level on the sea of debt. He spoke to us in a half-truth, as our economy is the largest in GDP, but we fall short of China in purchasing-power parity by about 0.22 trillion. Yet he continued to attempt to reassure us, “The United States of America, right now, has the strongest, most durable economy in the world.”
Despite his words, many of us do not believe this (see chart below) because we most certainly do not reap many benefits from it. He did brush upon this by saying, “And more and more wealth and income is concentrated at the very top.” He said this while a split-screen effect appeared via the live webcast of the SOTU, which indicated in classic PowerPoint style “the top three percent of the richest Americans hold half the nation’s wealth.” As an ardent American capitalist, I cannot despise this fact, as in one form or another, these people became rightfully united with their money. That leaves me here with the remaining 97 percent, digging change out of the couch for Powerball pipe dreams. You have to play to win.
Further, the president struck upon our greatest strategic asset—the people. More than two-thirds of Americans are ineligible for military service, and a contributing factor to that statistic is a lack of education. Even so, beyond service, our STEM scores are atrocious as a nation; on a global index, we rank 27th in math and 20th in science. The national defense posture suffers because of substandard education, meaning that we are falling short in our domestic capability to effectively design, manufacture, and maintain defense technology. Additionally, many Americans have been dissuaded from seeking higher education, simply due to the price tag.
The president may have a policy to improve this problem. Last night, he reiterated an education proposal, and stated, “We have to make college affordable for every American.” He continued by outlining a proposal for two years of free community college to students who are performing academically, but did not go into details. He did bring up a win for student loan holders regarding the limitation on imposed repayment to 10 percent of the borrower’s income, and also acknowledged that the price of education is ludicrous and in desperate need of revision.
In concert with education and national defense capabilities is our ability to cultivate research and development talent. President Obama stated, “We as a country have to answer: How do we reignite that spirit of innovation to meet our biggest challenges?” He then rightfully questioned our current and projected creative technological competencies, calling the system out in a near-Reaganesque statement:
“Sixty years ago, when the Russians beat us into space, we didn’t deny Sputnik was up there. We didn’t argue about the science, or shrink our research and development budget. We built a space program almost overnight, and twelve years later, we were walking on the moon.”
The president called out our lack of national cooperation, and the seeming lack of a national agenda in terms of scientific advancement. The comparison to President Reagan ends there, however, as President Obama has not been able to rally or unify the American people the way Reagan did. The American people were prepared to place ICBM-intercepting laser beams in orbit, under the name “Star Wars,” for President Reagan. We have not been able to rally behind things as a majority in the same fashion under President Obama. The national atmosphere has been fragmented.
In a legacy play, the president wants to change the mood and motivate the American people. “Last year, Vice President Biden said that, with a new moonshot, America can cure cancer. Well, so, so tonight, I’m announcing a new national effort to get it done.” This is possibly the greatest challenge issued to the American people in that it revitalizes research and development, education, our institutional capability, provides us an undeniable adversary to overcome, as well as opening the door to new innovations in medicine and public health.
In another pass at America’s national defense posture, President Obama spoke of our advancement in energy security, providing a call to action. “Why would we want to pass up the chance for American businesses to produce and sell the energy of the future?” The call, directed to the energy sector, hinges on job creation figures in support of his job performance. As the convergence of capable alternative energy sources has become a reality, the unemployment rate reached recession levels, and foreign gas and oil imports wreaked havoc on the economy. Employment of domestic energy employees has played a significant role in revitalizing the economy and stifling reliance on foreign imports. He passed a joke on the topic: “Gas under two dollars a gallon ain’t bad, either.” An appropriate joke that we can feel in our wallets, and a far cry from a national average price per gallon of $3.60 in 2012.
President Obama went on to cover an issue that he promised as he campaigned in 2007, and again when he first took office in 2008, to shut down the detainee facility at Guantanamo Bay. He said again, “I will keep working to shut down the prison at Guantanamo. It’s expensive, it’s unnecessary, and it only serves as a recruitment brochure for our enemies. There’s a better way.” This is undoubtedly simple rhetoric surrounding an empty promise, as he has yet to provide a realistic plan for exactly what to do with the enemy prisoners of war who pose a clear and present danger to the United State of America and its citizens. That is unless he chooses a continuation of the abuse of expanded executive powers, and trades Taliban commanders and every other bad guy for deserters such as Bowe Bergdahl. Clearly, if he can issue an executive order to implement such a murky deal, he must be able to handle the restructuring of a simple defense facility as the commander-in-chief.
The president walked a strange and precarious line in regards to foreign policy. He suggested a search for President Eisenhower’s global stability, grasped at non-involvement, and while threatening our enemies with an unlimited reach, reassured the national defense posture and claimed diplomatic strength on the world’s stage. He rhetorically asked, “How do we keep America safe and lead the world without becoming its policeman?” This is a question that President Obama has previously asked, but the foremost response that comes to mind is, if not us, then who? If we are to maintain our global presence, we cannot do so as isolationists. American interests are global. Our nation is expansive and internationally loved or hated. We are, in many cases, viewed as the leading nation.
In stride, President Obama continued, “No nation attacks us directly or our allies because they know that’s the path to ruin. Surveys show our standing around the world is higher than when I was elected to this office, and when it comes to every important international issue, people of the world do not look to Beijing or Moscow to lead. They call us.” These things are all true—for now. American foreign policy has been on as steady slope of a decline, as has been the average American’s interest in foreign affairs.
The correspondence of the trend is not a coincidence, as in the last seven years we have become self-involved, sheltered, and reactionist, with little interest in what does not directly influence our lives, and the national policy is reflecting it. Domestic politics generally favor the appeasement of reactionary self-reflection, and often-zealous outrage, which tend ignore the core issue of miscommunication and embrace the act of drama and rhetoric. Meanwhile, a greater part of the world is much less concerned about trending feelings, or what a talking head has to say. Foreign policy concerns are focused on issues such as rampant corruption, foreign incursions, refugees, or dealing with an unexploded ordnance epidemic. As we are all catching up on the latest “he said, she said,” do not be surprised when other nations do start calling Beijing and Moscow for assistance.
As with what seems like every State of the Union address, we heard about the plans to stop the terrorists. This time, President Obama said, “Priority number one is protecting the American people and going after terrorist networks. Both al-Qaeda and now ISIL pose a direct threat to our people, because in today’s world, even a handful of terrorists who place no value on human life, including their own, can do a lot of damage. They use the Internet to poison the minds of individuals inside our country; their actions undermine and destabilize our allies. We have to take them out.”
He went on to remind us that the terrorists are indeed maniacs simply waiting for us to stumble, as they propagate themselves with grandiose and illogical religious paraphrasing. But fear not, they are only a threat to civilians, and not our way of life. “But as we focus on destroying ISIL, over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands. Masses of fighters on the back of pickup trucks, twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages, they pose an enormous danger to civilians, they have to be stopped, but they do not threaten our national existence. That is the story ISIL wants to tell; that’s the kind of propaganda they use to recruit.” He made a good point, but could have worded that better.
On fear and conflict, the president picked up the tempo and laid down the ugly truth: “We just need to call them what they are: killers and fanatics who have to be rooted out, hunted down, and destroyed.”
He continued, citing success from Operation Inherent Resolve:
“And that’s exactly what we’re doing. For more than a year, America has led a coalition of more than 60 countries to cut off ISIL’s financing, disrupt their plots, stop the flow of terrorist fighters, and stamp out their vicious ideology. With nearly 10,000 air strikes, we are taking out their leadership, their oil, their training camps, their vicious ideology. We’re training, arming and supporting forces who are steadily reclaiming territory in Iraq and Syria.”
He laid out the facts and initial results, but did not mention a long-term strategy or mention the impending storm that this policy is creating by playing fast and loose arming yesterday’s enemies, who are today’s friends, and who will most likely be tomorrow’s enemies.
After taking note of the short-term success of the undeclared air war in Iraq and Syria, President Obama then targeted his contemporaries for further defense authorizations, “If this Congress is serious about winning this war and wants to send a message to our troops and the world, authorize the use of military force against ISIL. Take a vote.” There’s little chance a successful vote to this effect will take place, despite his repeated calls for it. The politics behind the never-ending tug-of-war in D.C. simply will not allow for it, as payment for the proposed bill is not voter-friendly.
Immediately after, the president set out to contradict himself: “We also can’t try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis…even if it’s done with the best of intentions. That’s not leadership; that’s a recipe for quagmire, spilling American blood and treasure that ultimately will weaken us. It’s the lesson of Vietnam. It’s the lesson of Iraq, and we should have learned it by now.” While this statement makes sense, it does not support the action he is calling for in Iraq and Syria.
President Obama then turned to Iran and seemingly missed the report that U.S. Navy sailors were captured by Iranian forces earlier in the day. Even so, he cited successes. “That’s why we built a global coalition, with sanctions and principled diplomacy, to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. And as we speak, Iran has rolled back its nuclear program, shipped out its uranium stockpile, and the world has avoided another war.” He may be right, but Iran is still a hostile nation that just detained American service members and, just a few weeks ago, fired unguided rockets in the direction of a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier.
In a smooth transition, President Obama went on to support the Trans-Pacific Partnership. “That’s how we forged a Trans-Pacific Partnership to open markets, and protect workers and the environment, and advance American leadership in Asia. It cuts 18,000 taxes on products made in America which will then support more good jobs here in America. With TPP, China does not set the rules in that region, we do. We want to show our strength in this new century? Approve this agreement, give us the tools to enforce it. It’s the right thing to do.” This plan is contradictory to his earlier statements on domestic growth, as the trade agreement has a high probability for negative consequences for American unions and employment.
A concern the president next approached is an issue that makes one consider the shelf life on crazy. Regarding Cuba, he said, “Fifty years of isolating Cuba had failed to promote democracy, it set us back in Latin America. That’s why we restored diplomatic relations, opened the door to travel and commerce, positioned ourselves to improve the lives of the Cuban people. So, if you want to consolidate our leadership and credibility in the hemisphere, recognize that the Cold War is over. Lift the embargo.” There is no sane reason to still have an embargo on Cuba. The only hindrance I can think of is some old authoritative war dog, posted by the fireplace of a smoky room, a man who cannot let go of the past, with a “No, because I said so” attitude. The fact that we still despise our neighbor to the south is not only disappointing, it is the kind of madness that you can sell to the Mad Hatter of Wonderland.
On the brighter side of global policy, President Obama said,
“The point is American leadership in the 21st century is not a choice between ignoring the rest of the world, except when we kill terrorists; or occupying and rebuilding whatever society is unraveling. Leadership means a wise application of military power, and rallying the world behind causes that are right. It means seeing our foreign assistance as part of our national security, not something separate, not charity. When we lead nearly 200 nations to the most ambitious agreement in history to fight climate change, yes, that helps vulnerable countries, but it also protects our kids. When we help Ukraine defend its democracy, or Colombia resolve a decades-long war, that strengthens the international order we depend on. When we help African countries feed their people and care for the sick.”
It is awesome to be reminded that, as a nation, in the name of every American, great things are being done—wonderful things that bind us together, such as assisting the defense of Ukrainian democracy and providing aid in Africa.
President Obama then brought up a point that SOFREP previously presented in a different frame, that Muslims are not our enemy. “When politicians insult Muslims, whether abroad, or fellow citizens, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid is called names, that doesn’t make us safer. That’s not telling it what—telling it like it is, it’s just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world.” After all, being a close-minded bigot who lives by factionalized values is anything but American.