President Obama on Tuesday addressed critics of his foreign policy, calling charges that America has been weakened under his command “political hot air.” But Obama said it is a dangerous time mainly because of failing Middle East states like Syria, and because economic crises in China and a newly militarized Russia are undoing the international system.
“It’s up to us to help remake that system,” Obama said in his final State of the Union address. Declaring that the U.S. needs to “set priorities,” Obama called for a patient and disciplined national security strategy. “Leadership means a wise application of military power,” Obama said.
Here is what Obama said -- and didn’t say -- on key issues:
ISIS and al Qaeda: Obama called keeping Americans safe and chasing terrorist networks “priority number one.” But, in remarks that are sure to rile his critics, Obama said Tuesday that ISIS and other terror groups do not pose an existential threat to the United States. “Over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands,” Obama said. “Masses of fighters on the back of pickup trucks and twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages pose an enormous danger to civilians and must be stopped. But they do not threaten our national existence.”
In the wake of the November attacks in Paris and the December attack in San Bernardino, Calif., Republicans have renewed charges that Obama is reluctant to strike back hard against ISIS. Obama on Tuesday cited the ongoing air campaign in Iraq and Syria as proof he is serious. And, he said, he remains focused on taking out top terrorists. “If you doubt America’s commitment — or mine — to see that justice is done,” Obama said, “just ask Osama bin Laden.”
Syria: On the American air war against ISIS in Syria, where the terror group makes its headquarters, Obama warned against escalation. “That’s a recipe for quagmire, spilling American blood and treasure,” Obama said. “It’s the lesson of Vietnam, of Iraq — and we should have learned it by now.” But Obama faces a chorus of calls to intervene more assertively, from Republican presidential candidates and from Syrian activists seeking a conclusion to the nearly five-year civil war there. Obama said Tuesday that on issues like Syria the US will mobilize allies and “make sure other countries pull their own weight.” And while he didn’t name names, Obama also managed to squeeze in a thinly veiled dig at Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz, who has vowed on the campaign trail to “carpet bomb” ISIS. “That may work as a TV sound bite, but it doesn’t pass muster on the world stage,” Obama said.
Iran: On Iran, it’s what Obama didn’t say that may have echoed loudest. Obama made no mention of the 10 U.S. sailors detained Tuesday by Iran in the Persian Gulf. Only hours before his address, Iranian military forces seized two U.S. Navy ships and detained their crews on Iran’s Farsi Island. U.S. officials said the sailors were on a training mission in the gulf when one of the boats ran into mechanical trouble and the ships drifted into Iranian water. A senior defense official told NBC News that the US had been assured of the sailor’s safety and well-being.
As Obama delivered his address, the sailors remained in Iranian custody. Even still, and without mentioning the crisis, Obama touted on Tuesday his landmark deal to curb Iran’s nuclear weapon program. “As we speak, Iran has rolled back its nuclear program, shipped out its uranium stockpile, and the world has avoided another war,” Obama said. Implimentation of the deal, which was negotiated between Iran and six world powers and agreed to in July, is expected to come in days, and would direct billions of dollars in sanction relief to Iran.
Guantanamo: Obama reissued a call on Tuesday to shut down the U.S. government’s prison at Guantanamo Bay, where detainees from battlefields have been kept since the period immediately after 9/11. But Obama has been vowing to shut down Guantanamo his entire presidency, and he ran for the White House on that pledge when he was a U.S. senator. “It is expensive, it is unnecessary, and it only serves as a recruitment brochure for our enemies,” Obama said Tuesday. With only a year left in his presidency, closing the book on Guantanamo could remain an unfulfilled promise by the time the next U.S. president is inaugurated in January 2017.
TPP and Cuba: Obama also stressed two economic initiatives he regards as wins. On the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, which would set a new trade arrangement with Pacific Rim counties, Obama urged passage in Congress. And, on Cuba, Obama called on Congress to lift the trade embargo, which has been in effect for more than 50 years. Over the summer, the Obama administration restored diplomatic relations with Cuba and lifted some travel restrictions.