State of the Empire in 2015

Obama delivers his 2015 State of the Union address.

Obama delivers his 2015 State of the Union address.

The Obama administration has never been one for grand State of the Union addresses. And once the commentariat has had its fun picking apart the subtle jabs, the applause lines, the body language, and whatever else, there’s often not a whole lot of oxygen left to dig into anything else.

So like a lot of people, I spend a lot of time rolling my eyes at the annual exercise, and sometimes I’m tempted to skip it altogether. But for many Americans, it’s the one political speech a year they pay much attention to. So it’s worth weighing in on.

In several respects, particularly on economic issues, Obama struck a decidedly more populist tone than in prior addresses. Many of his new proposals here — such as paid sick leave for workers, federal assistance for childcare, paid maternity leave, and a plan to make community college free — aren’t revolutionary exactly, but they’d make life better for millions of Americans, and they’d bring the United States up somewhat more to the standards of the developed world. On balance, there was a lot more to like than in years past, when the president seemed to feel constrained to tack to the center.

Yet on foreign policy, as usual, it was a mixed bag. Here are a few passages that caught my eye — the good, the bad, and the oh-so-ugly — that I’d hate to see fall through the cracks as the speech falls out of the news cycle.

Yes!

Towards the opening of Obama’s foreign policy remarks, he highlighted some major breaks his administration has made from the ruts of the past. If he follows through on them, they might mark the most significant foreign policy accomplishments of his entire presidency. (And interestingly, they sound more like Obama circa 2008 than anything else in his speech.)

Cuba

In Cuba, we are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date. When what you’re doing doesn’t work for fifty years, it’s time to try something new. Our shift in Cuba policy has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere; removes a phony excuse for restrictions in Cuba; stands up for democratic values; and extends the hand of friendship to the Cuban people. And this year, Congress should begin the work of ending the embargo. 

The Obama administration’s recent announcement that the U.S. government would pursue full normalization with Cuba marked a stunning about-face. Though it puts the United States about half a century behind the rest of the world, Obama should be applauded for taking on a deeply entrenched anti-normalization lobby, seemingly of his own accord. Congress should follow his lead and end the senseless embargo (something the business wing of the GOP, perhaps in nostalgia for Batista, has been quietly pushing for decades).

Iran

Between now and this spring, we have a chance to negotiate a comprehensive agreement that prevents a nuclear-armed Iran; secures America and our allies  —  including Israel — while avoiding yet another Middle East conflict. There are no guarantees that negotiations will succeed, and I keep all options on the table to prevent a nuclear Iran. But new sanctions passed by this Congress, at this moment in time, will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails  —  alienating America from its allies; and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again. It doesn’t make sense. That is why I will veto any new sanctions bill that threatens to undo this progress.

Speaking of taking on deeply entrenched lobbies, Obama has faced down enormous pressure from the right-wing “Israel Lobby” and other Beltway hawks in his bid to strike a nuclear accord with Iran. A deal that staves off the immediate threat of war would be good enough. One that ends Washington and Tehran’s 30-plus years of mutual estrangement would be even better.

Obama’s absolutely right about the sanctions proposals currently being bandied about by hardline senators like Mark Kirk and the newly elected Tom Cotton: They’re designed not to ensure Iranian compliance with a potential agreement, but to avert the chances of any agreement at all by chasing Iran away from the table. “The end of these negotiations isn’t an unintended consequence of Congressional action,” Cotton said in a recent talk at the Heritage Foundation. “It is very much an intended consequence.”

So I was delighted to hear Obama reiterate his threat to veto any new sanctions legislation to cross his desk while the talks are underway. Despite his perfunctory insistence on keeping “all options on the table,” the idea of going to war with Iran anytime soon has been relegated to a disreputable fringe — exactly where it belongs.

Yes, But…

So Obama got it right on a few things. More often, he highlighted some defensible goals, but left out some crucial context — often concerning his own record.

Guantanamo Bay

Since I’ve been president, we’ve worked responsibly to cut the population of GTMO in half. Now it’s time to finish the job. And I will not relent in my determination to shut it down.

Yes, Obama has slowly whittled down the population at Guantanamo Bay. But the prison remains open despite his executive order — issued as one of his first acts as president — to shut it down, and despite the fact that nearly half the remaining inmates have been cleared for release.

Releases have been on the uptick lately, and it’s nice to hear that that the administration still considers closing the facility a priority. But let’s hope this is the last State of the Union we hear about this. Shut it down, dude.

Iraq and Afghanistan

Tonight, for the first time since 9/11, our combat mission in Afghanistan is over. Six years ago, nearly 180,000 American troops served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, fewer than 15,000 remain. 

Okay, but last year around this time, we had approximately zero troops in Iraq, and Obama had previously indicated that we’d be approaching zero in Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Instead, Obama’s deployed around 3,000 new troops to Iraq since last summer, and last November quietly extended the combat mission for nearly 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan for at least another year. We’ve also got a bonus bombing engagement in Syria. It’s true that the balance of U.S. forces overseas has been on a slow decline, but here Obama is taking credit for ending wars that he’s actually extended, or in some cases started himself.

Russia and Ukraine

We’re upholding the principle that bigger nations can’t bully the small  —  by opposing Russian aggression, supporting Ukraine’s democracy, and reassuring our NATO allies. Last year, as we were doing the hard work of imposing sanctions along with our allies, 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.

Forgive me for straying, but if we’re concerned about bigger nations bullying the small, wasn’t it just last December that Obama directed his ambassador at the UN to block yet another Security Council resolution calling on Israel to end its illegal occupation of Palestinian lands? And isn’t his own government threatening to cut funding to the Palestinian Authority for filing war crimes charges against Israel over last summer’s brutal assault on the Gaza strip?

Well, back to the matter at hand. Washington’s role in Ukraine’s civil crisis was a fishy one (remember that “F— the EU” phone call?), but I agree that there’s really no excuse for Russia’s seizure of the Crimea or its stoking of Ukraine’s civil war. Sanctions — though by some measure an ineffective and needlessly provocative response — were far preferable to the military escalation urged by some of the president’s more hawkish critics.

Nonetheless, what really has Russia’s economy reeling is the collapse of global oil prices. As Russia’s currency bottomed out, Miriam Pemberton wrote a short piece for Foreign Policy In Focus reminding us that what happened to Russia could just as well happen to the United States if we keep our economy hitched to the military-industrial-fossil-fuel complex.

Climate Change

In Beijing, we made an historic announcement  —  the United States will double the pace at which we cut carbon pollution, and China committed, for the first time, to limiting their emissions. And because the world’s two largest economies came together, other nations are now stepping up, and offering hope that, this year, the world will finally reach an agreement to protect the one planet we’ve got.

I don’t want to diminish the significance of the world’s two largest polluters making a deal to cut back on carbon. But as Walden Bello outlined for Foreign Policy In Focus recently, there are two enormous problems with this deal.

First, the agreed upon cuts are nowhere near enough to prevent catastrophic climate change — and in the case of China, there are no specific reductions listed at all, only a vague agreement that Chinese emissions will “peak” by 2030.

The silver lining, I suppose, is that those targets could theoretically be tightened over time once a modicum of trust is established. But the more worrying problem, Bello observes, is that Washington and Beijing completely circumvented the existing UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to strike their own deal. This isn’t just a bureaucratic problem — it means that an international agreement mandating specific emissions cuts is now extremely unlikely, since the world’s leading polluters and economic powerhouses have already opted on a voluntary (and unfortunately insufficient) system of their own making.

Torture and Drones

As Americans, we respect human dignity, even when we’re threatened, which is why I’ve prohibited torture, and worked to make sure our use of new technology like drones is properly constrained. 

Prohibiting torture is great. But when you know full well that the CIA tortured people, lied about it, and then spied on the Senate committee that was investigating it for lying, well, it’s time to give that prohibition some teeth. Currently the only person serving time for the CIA’s amply documented and unbelievably illegal torture program is the whistleblower who exposed it. Meanwhile, the architects of the policy are paraded across cable news programs like respectable statesmen.

On the drone front, it’s true that drone strikes have tailed off in the last year or two (though by no means completely). That’s an immense credit to the people who worked to its expose its human costs. But Obama shouldn’t yet be allowed to forget that it was his administration that assembled every Tuesday to set “kill lists” for the week (and indeed, it may still), spreading the drone war from Yemen and Somalia to Pakistan and all the way to the Philippines. Conservative estimates put the death toll from the administration’s drone campaign at 2,400, with civilian casualties numbering at least in the hundreds and the “militant” associations of the dead impossible to verify.

Just, No

Finally, on a few issues — perhaps the ones he’ll most rely on the new GOP majority to support him on — Obama offered a few initiatives that weren’t defensible at all.

Trade Deals

As we speak, China wants to write the rules for the world’s fastest-growing region. That would put our workers and businesses at a disadvantage. Why would we let that happen? We should write those rules. We should level the playing field. That’s why I’m asking both parties to give me trade promotion authority to protect American workers, with strong new trade deals from Asia to Europe that aren’t just free, but fair.

It might have been easy to miss if you don’t follow these issues, but this passage was absolutely horrible. Set aside for a moment the petty imperialism at play in Obama’s insistence that China shouldn’t “make the rules” for trade in its own region (which Obama didn’t name, perhaps because that would have made the weirdness of the remark more apparent, but he meant the Asia-Pacific).

What Obama wants here is what’s called “fast track authority” for two trade deals his administration has been negotiating — the Trans-Pacific Partnership (or TPP) between the United States and nearly a dozen Pacific Rim countries, and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (or TTIP) between the United States and European Union. Both deals are being written in secret, by lobbyists — and if they’re anything like other recent U.S. trade deals, they’ll give corporations the power to sue sovereign governments in an obscure World Bank tribunal for imposing labor or environmental regulations they don’t like. So “we” wouldn’t be making the rules for trade in Asia or anyplace else — corporate lobbyists would be.

That’s the exact opposite of “leveling the playing field” and anathema to the protection of workers anywhere. Yet “fast track” would let Obama present these lobbyist-written trade pacts to Congress for an up-or-down vote with no opportunity for amendments. That’s precisely why a large coalition of social and environmental justice groups has launched a campaign to make sure he doesn’t get it, arguing that stopping fast track is key to stopping the whole deal.

War Authorization

In Iraq and Syria, American leadership  —  including our military power  —  is stopping ISIL’s advance. 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. We’re also supporting a moderate opposition in Syria that can help us in this effort, and assisting people everywhere who stand up to the bankrupt ideology of violent extremism. This effort will take time. It will require focus. But we will succeed. And tonight, I call on this Congress to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL.

I won’t go into the problems with Obama’s open-ended war strategy in Iraq and Syria — I tried to cover most of that here.

Still, maybe you think it’s a good thing that he’s asking for congressional approval (and implicitly, perhaps, an open debate about the merits of the war). But if you ask me, it’s a little “Caesar Augustus” of him to “call on Congress” to retroactively authorize an unconstitutional war he’s already launched — especially when he’s already claimed that he doesn’t need an authorization anyway.

The War Powers Act is clear on this: If the president fails to get congressional authorization for a military deployment within 60 days of launching it, then it’s not Congress’ job to rustle up an authorization — it’s the president’s job to end the deployment. What Obama wants here is a legal fig leaf for an illegal war, and he shouldn’t get it.

So there are a few things to like, a few things to worry about, and a few others to get mad about.

Of course, this piece just covers what Obama chose to talk about. There was plenty — like the proliferation of U.S. Special Forces over most of planet and the utterly compromised Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” — that he opted not to mention at all. And there were a few really big things — such as an epidemic of police violence, a breakdown in domestic racial relations, and horrifying excesses in police militarization and domestic surveillance — that he alluded to but dared not name. These tragic trends have all defined the darker side of the Obama years.

Well, there’s always next year.

Peter Certo is the editor of Foreign Policy In Focus.