I attempt to translate for you the foreign policy related portions of President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address:
Obama: I believe in a smarter kind of American leadership. We lead best when we combine military power with strong diplomacy; when we leverage our power with coalition-building; when we don’t let our fears blind us to the opportunities that this new century presents. That’s exactly what we’re doing right now — and around the globe, it is making a difference.
Translation: George W. Bush was dumb on foreign policy and I’m the opposite of George W. Bush. I campaigned on the idea that we needed to restore America’s image in the world and I’m going to claim that this has happened and is yielding benefits, without specifying what exactly those benefits are. The truth is, the world is on fire and there’s not a whole lot anybody can do about it.
Obama: Instead of Americans patrolling the valleys of Afghanistan, we’ve trained their security forces, who’ve now taken the lead, and we’ve honored our troops’ sacrifice by supporting that country’s first democratic transition. Instead of sending large ground forces overseas, we’re partnering with nations from South Asia to North Africa to deny safe haven to terrorists who threaten America.
Translation: We are outta there, Afghans, you are on your own. We will keep giving you guns and money, but that’s about it. Good luck with the Taliban. As for the other countries in the Arab Winter, we’re going to stop talking about the revolutions and focus on helping whatever tin-pot government is in place to kill terrorists. Democracy and human rights will have to be put on the back burner for now; we need those dictators in the short term. The long term is another president’s problem.
Obama: 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.
Translation: I know I said “degrade and destroy” but “stopping ISIL’s advance” is about the limit to how far I can stretch the realities here. In Iraq, the new prime minister is almost as bad as the last one, Iran is taking over, and the army is a mess. There’s no way I’m going to send more troops there (aside from the 3,000 I just sent) and there’s nobody in Syria to work with. We’ll still keep bombing and hope that does more good than harm, even if my “broad coalition” fighting Islamic State warriors de facto includes Iran, Russia and the Bashar al-Assad regime.
Obama: 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.
Translation: We’ll keep our commitment to the “moderate” opposition until they finally disappear, but we’ve written them off and we are going to have to build this new rebel army from scratch, if we end up ever building it at all. My administration has to have some plausible explanation of how Syria gets solved, so let’s give the political lead to the Russians. Assad is probably going to stay anyway, so no use talking about my previous calls for him to go.
Obama: 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.
Translation: I am happy to continue to play this Kabuki theater act with Congress, where I criticize them for not passing a new AUMF and they criticize me for not working with them on it. The truth is, they don’t want to vote on my new war and I don’t want the restrictions that a new law would certainly have. Blaming each other is a win-win.
Obama: 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.
Translation: Thank Allah that the Saudis, for who knows what reason, tanked the entire oil market. Maybe they were trying to squeeze Iran and Putin got caught up in it? Who cares? Now I can be the rooster taking credit for the sunrise. We chose sanctions because that’s about as much as we could stomach. It’s only Ukraine. But hey, sometimes you get lucky.
Obama: 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.
Translation: Everybody knows there’s no way Congress is going to lift that embargo. But I’ve already made the political bet that this Cuba thaw is going to smell good in two years time, so I might as well double down. If the Republicans don’t do anything and Cuba gets better, that will cost them. If Cuba gets worse, well, that’s Hillary’s problem.
Obama: 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.
Translation: Congress, I’m not going to let you wreck my single most prized foreign policy legacy item. I’m not going to let your “donors” wreck it either. If anybody is going to wreck it, it will be the Iranians or John Kerry. I’m prepared to call anybody who is for sanctions a warmonger, whether it’s a Republican or a Democrat. You’ll probably do it anyway, but I’ll try to make it as painful as possible.
Obama: No foreign nation, no hacker, should be able to shut down our networks, steal our trade secrets, or invade the privacy of American families, especially our kids.
Translation: I had to mention the Sony hack because it was in the news recently. But I’m not going to mention North Korea. Sure, they probably did it, but that Kim Jong Un guy is unpredictable. Also, I don’t want anyone to notice America has no real policy to deal with the overall threat of North Korea.
Obama: 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. It’s not who we are.
Translation: There’s no way the Republican Congress is going to let me empty the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, that’s obvious. So it seems the very first promise I made on national security as president will not be kept, but it’s not my fault. I’ll continue to release detainees and give them to our friendly governments to watch over, like our pals in Yemen. What could go wrong?
Obama on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the Arab Spring, al-Qaeda, Latin America, Hong Kong protests, human rights, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Egypt, Libya and Boko Haram.
Josh Rogin is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about national security and foreign affairs.