President Barack Obama, speaking to the US Congress in his annual State of the Union address last night, renewed his pledge to withdraw most US combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year and said he would emphasise diplomacy to address the world's conflicts.
"America must move off a permanent war footing," Obama said in a speech watched on television by an estimated 30 million US viewers. "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."
What Obama did not say is whether US troops will remain in Afghanistan after 2014. Indeed, even though Obama devoted a surprising portion of his speech to foreign policy, it comes after a year of setbacks, analysts say. Obama has pulled the US back from the world, even as he prosecuted a covert war on terror through drone strikes and targeted military operations. As a result, he has been criticised by elements on both the left and right for pursuing what they say is a risky new isolationism. His supporters, though, view his policy as realism.
"The Democratic liberal interventionists and neo-conservatives hate his policies. He has proven to be remarkably risk-averse, not risk-ready when it comes to adventures abroad," said Aaron David Miller, a distinguished scholar at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center, a think-tank.
Today, the US faces challenges not just in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan and Bahrain because of civil unrest and democratisation movements. Syria's grinding civil war threatens to destabilise its neighbours. Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians appear fraught. Obama's announced strategic rebalancing to the Pacific hasn't materialised. North Korea's new leader is erratic and regional tensions are rising between China and its neighbours, notably US ally Japan.
'An extraordinarily bad hand'
"The whole situation is very difficult,'' said Ron Neumann, a former ambassador to Afghanistan and president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, who faults Obama for not acting sooner in Syria. "Obama has been dealt an extraordinarily bad hand. In most of these cases, there are no good policies. It's a choice between really bad ones, and ones that might work, or might not."
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Obama and his White House advisers are nothing if not politically astute and, as the president's speech reflected, Americans today are focused more on challenges at home - healthcare, jobs, wages and immigration. A Pew poll in November showed, for the first time since 1974, a growing majority of Americans believe US prestige is in decline. Despite vexing foreign policy problems, most Americans want the US to mind its own business abroad and confront problems at home - 63 percent want to see the US less involved in Middle East politics.
"We floundered in Syria. We seem a little too cynical in Egypt. There is a collective sense that you have this disengagement and if he furthers that with a withdrawal from Afghanistan, then you will have questions raised," said Michael O'Hanlon, senior fellow at Brookings Institution, a Washington think-tank.
There are presently 38,000 American troops in Afghanistan. Many observers believe Afghanistan's fragile progress would be lost if the US were to leave abruptly at the end of this year without a bilateral security agreement in place. Karzai has raised objections to a security agreement, notably refusing to grant US forces the right to enter private homes unannounced. Administration officials have said in recent weeks that without an agreement, the US would withdraw all troops.
"If you go, things will get much worse, quickly," said Neumann. "If you stay and remain relevant and take appropriate action at the right times, you have a chance to make things better."
Criticism from Gates
Former US Defence Secretary Robert Gates wrote in his new book, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, that the president appeared to lack conviction about the outcome of the war in Afghanistan. Gates concluded that Obama "doesn't believe in his own strategy, and doesn't consider the war to be his. For him, it's all about getting out."
Concern about the pace of US withdrawal extends beyond Afghanistan. In the US Senate, Republican foreign policy leaders fear that Obama, through decisions on many fronts, has sharply backed away from the US' traditional post-World War II role as the leader of global democratic alliances, according to a senior aide.
"The picture the president painted of the security situation in the Middle East is not even remotely connected to the world as I see it,'' Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said on C-SPAN after the speech. "Syria is a humanitarian disaster. The King of Jordan is under siege. He forgot to tell us that Iraq is falling apart and al-Qaeda is on the rise."
In Syria, Obama ignored the Syrian rebels at first, only to promise military aid that never fully materialised. When Obama threatened a US missile strike, Russia's intercession with a plan to dispose of Syria's chemical weapons saved the American president from the probable embarrassment of a congressional vote of disapproval.
Meanwhile, Assad's forces are continuing the siege of the restive city of Homs, as troubled UN-sponsored peace talks get under way in Switzerland.
For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy [with Iran] a chance to succeed.
"Syria is a moral, strategic and international humanitarian disaster. The question is whether it is our disaster," said Miller, who expects peace talks to muddle indefinitely and the war to continue. But in Obama's policy of disengagement, Syria is not the US' problem, Miller argued.
Iraq is sliding back into sectarian warfare amid renewed infiltration by al-Qaeda. The US did not reach a security agreement with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government that would have provided for a troop presence after 2011. Maliki's Shia-led party has failed to assimilate the country's Sunni population into a coalition government. Al-Qaeda-affiliated fighters in Anbar province briefly took control of key towns, including Fallujah, where the US Marines had fought a costly and bloody hand-to-hand battle during the Iraq war.
"There is a cost of inaction," said Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "There is a danger in thinking the American people don't desire engagement. It leaves out the leadership role. Whether we like it or not, we do not just get to focus on domestic issues and forget our role in the world. We are not a country that has that luxury."
To be sure, there's hope for Obama's legacy, Lemmon said. Nuclear negotiations with Iran could lead to a restoration of diplomatic relations with the US within the next three years. "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," Obama said.
Reflecting scepticism that Iran is serious about making concessions, lawmakers in both the House and Senate have put forward new sanctions legislation they intend to pass should the talks with Iran fail. Obama said he would veto a new Iran sanctions bill. "For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed," he said.
The prospect of the West reducing sanctions on Iran has raised tensions between the US and Israel, where the renewal of peace talks with the Palestinians has been met with scepticism. Two weeks ago, Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Ya'alon was forced to apologise after private comments surfaced in which he called US Secretary of State John Kerry "messianic" and "obsessive" and said the security plan the US had put forward was "not worth the paper it's written on".
The world has become more unstable and the US' role more uncertain in the past year, the Brookings Institution foreign policy analysts Robert Kagan and Ted Piccone wrote in a report last week. Obama needs to "reassert American leadership in a rules-based international system in which norms are not only articulated but also, wherever possible, enforced", they said.
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