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Obama's foreign policy goes from war to diplomacy in State of the Union Address

While the core President Barack Obama's 2014 State of the Union Address delivered on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014 focused on the President's economic opportunity program and domestic policy in general taking up nearly an hour of the speech. The remaining time spent on foreign policy almost as if it was an afterthought, tacked on at the end of a major economic speech. Obama's foreign policy was both mostly forgotten by the President and the press, as it transformed from a war centered foreign policy tone focused on resolving the world's problems through diplomacy, declaring; "America must move off a permanent war footing." What little Obama spoke about foreign policy centered on the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, programs to help veterans and diplomatic efforts in Syria, Iran, and the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

President Barack Obama gave a tribute to to wounded war in Iraq and Afghanistan veteran Cory Remsburg during his State of the Union Address, Jan. 29, 2014
Michael Reynolds / EPA

After declaring the end of the War in Afghanistan in the introduction of his address, President did not revisit foreign policy until the end of his speech; "in tight-knit communities across America, fathers and mothers will tuck in their kids, put an arm around their spouse, remember fallen comrades, and give thanks for being home from a war that, after twelve long years, is finally coming to an end."

Continuing, picking up where he left off nearly an hour before President praised the military that served and also the end of the war in Iraq; "Tonight, because of the extraordinary troops and civilians who risk and lay down their lives to keep us free, the United States is more secure. When I took office, nearly 180,000 Americans were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, all our troops are out of Iraq."

Obama then victoriously declared the progress towards the end of the official War in Afghanistan, recounting; "More than 60,000 of our troops have already come home from Afghanistan. With Afghan forces now in the lead for their own security, our troops have moved to a support role. Together with our allies, we will complete our mission there by the end of this year, and America's longest war will finally be over." President Obama's optimism with both Iraq and Afghanistan contradicts the daily violence, bombings, and encroachment of al-Qaida in Iraq and the Taliban back in Afghanistan that is the reality for both citizens of the countries and foreigners and American military and diplomats face there every day.

Just as American foreign policy is transitioning towards a solely diplomatic role, the President transitioned his remarks on the state the country's foreign affairs; "I strongly believe our leadership and our security cannot depend on our military alone. As commander-in-chief, I have used force when needed to protect the American people, and I will never hesitate to do so as long as I hold this office. But I will not send our troops into harm's way unless it's truly necessary; nor will I allow our sons and daughters to be mired in open-ended conflicts. We must fight the battles that need to be fought, not those that terrorists prefer from us - large-scale deployments that drain our strength and may ultimately feed extremism."

Even though the security agreement seems uncertain with Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai reluctance to sign a security with the U.S., and wants to have peace talks with the Taliban before, Obama still included America's continued limited role in country should it be signed; "After 2014, we will support a unified Afghanistan as it takes responsibility for its own future. If the Afghan government signs a security agreement that we have negotiated, a small force of Americans could remain in Afghanistan with NATO allies to carry out two narrow missions: training and assisting Afghan forces, and counterterrorism operations to pursue any remnants of al-Qaida."

The once dominating War on Terrorism that filled former President George W. Bush's State of the Union addresses a decade a ago has been reduced to a mere footnote, even though terrorism and the threat is still very much alive in the world; "For while our relationship with Afghanistan will change, one thing will not: our resolve that terrorists do not launch attacks against our country." Continuing, Obama stated fighting terrorism's limited role in American policy; "We have to remain vigilant…. even as we aggressively pursue terrorist networks - through more targeted efforts and by building the capacity of our foreign partners - America must move off a permanent war footing." The President declared that the U.S. has "put al-Qaida's core leadership on a path to defeat, the threat has evolved, as al-Qaida affiliates and other extremists take root in different parts of the world," with pockets and "networks now appearing in "Yemen, Somalia, Iraq and Mali."

President Obama returned to a campaign promise vowing to close Guantanamo Bay that has been sitting on the back burner for over five years. He believes that now the time is right to do so "And with the Afghan war ending, this needs to be the year Congress lifts the remaining restrictions on detainee transfers and we close the prison at Guantanamo Bay - because we counter terrorism not just through intelligence and military action, but by remaining true to our constitutional ideals, and setting an example for the rest of the world."

The President looking to avoid controversial the drone and the National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance programs gave them only one sentence each. Regarding the drone program Obama declared; "I've imposed prudent limits on the use of drones - for we will not be safer if people abroad believe we strike within their countries without regard for the consequence. Obama summarized his extensive speech from Jan. 17 about revising NSA's program; "working with this Congress, I will reform our surveillance programs - because the vital work of our intelligence community depends on public confidence, here and abroad, that the privacy of ordinary people is not being violated."

President Obama felt the need to defend his diplomacy efforts with Syria and mostly Iran. Speaking of Syria and the deal reached this past September to rid the country of it chemical weapons; "American diplomacy, backed by the threat of force, is why Syria's chemical weapons are being eliminated, and we will continue to work with the international community to usher in the future the Syrian people deserve - a future free of dictatorship, terror and fear." Currently peace talks are underway to end Syria's civil war.

Defending the interim nuclear weapons agreement with Iran dominated President Obama's foreign policy discussion; many in Congress are skeptocal of Iran's sincerity. Obama proudly declared; "American diplomacy, backed by pressure, that has halted the progress of Iran's nuclear program - and rolled parts of that program back - for the very first time in a decade… And with our allies and partners, we're engaged in negotiations to see if we can peacefully achieve a goal we all share: preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon." The Geneva Interim Accord went into on Monday, Jan. 20, 2014.

The President clarified that he and his administration do not have delusions about Iran; "These negotiations will be difficult. They may not succeed. We are clear-eyed about Iran … any long-term deal we agree to must be based on verifiable action that convinces us and the international community that Iran is not building a nuclear bomb."

Obama felt he had to reach back in history picking both revered Democratic and Republican president to lend legitimacy to his administration negotiations with Iran; "If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today."

However, Obama stood firm he would not allow Congress to impose new economic sanctions on Iran while negotiations are ongoing. The President warned Congress; "let me be clear: if this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it. For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed."

President Obama wants to give Iran the benefit of the doubt, but would impose new sanctions if they violate the interim agreement and continue with their nuclear ambitions; "If Iran's leaders do not seize this opportunity, then I will be the first to call for more sanctions, and stand ready to exercise all options to make sure Iran does not build a nuclear weapon. But if Iran's leaders do seize the chance, then Iran could take an important step to rejoin the community of nations, and we will have resolved one of the leading security challenges of our time without the risks of war." Senate Republicans have been considering introducing new sanctions since the fall even as an interim agreement was reached.

The President spoke of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in a way that would reassure a weary and suspicious and resentful American Jewish community, who doubts the President's commitment to do what is best for Israel's security and future. Obama expressed; "American diplomacy is supporting Israelis and Palestinians as they engage in difficult but necessary talks to end the conflict there; to achieve dignity and an independent state for Palestinians, and lasting peace and security for the State of Israel - a Jewish state that knows America will always be at their side."

When discussing the America's relationships with the rest of the world, the President speed through them highlighting; Europe, Tunisia, Burma, Ukraine, Africa the Americas, Asia-Pacific and the Philippines, only allotting each country or area one sentence of his State of the Union Address. Obama just as briefly mentioned Team USA going to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia; "we do them because we believe in the inherent dignity and equality of every human being, regardless of race or religion, creed or sexual orientation. And next week, the world will see one expression of that commitment – when Team USA marches the red, white, and blue into the Olympic Stadium – and brings home the gold."

However, the "high point" of President Obama's address and also its most poignant moment was when he highlighted and recounted Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg's story. He was seriously wounded during his 10th deployment by "a roadside bomb" in Afghanistan, where he is still rehabilitating. Remburg was one First Lady Michelle Obama's guests for the speech. Obama praised Remboug as example of American military, who sacrificed for their country; "Day by day, he's learned to speak again and stand again and walk again - and he's working toward the day when he can serve his country again…. Cory is here tonight. And like the Army he loves, like the America he serves, Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg never gives up, and he does not quit." Almost everyone in attendance in the chamber gave Remsburg a standing ovation, a moving tribute where Remsburg and his Commander-in-Chief exchanged thumbs up.

America's shrinking foreign presence and influence is not going unnoticed, last Friday, Jan 24 while speaking at the World Economic Forum Secretary of State John Kerry was left defending the present path of American foreign policy and charges of retreating from it preeminence which in part came from Republican Senator John McCain, R-AZ. Kerry responded, defending and explaining the transition from military to diplomacy; "This misperception appears to be based on the simplistic assumption, that the only tool of our influence is our military, and that if we don't have a huge troop presence or aren't brandishing an immediate threat of force, we are somehow absent from the arena."


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