State of the Union’s Role in the World

January 24, 2012

Tonight’s State of the Union address will focus on jobs, the economy and the middle class. Whether the topic is energy security, educating Americans to compete, or restoring the values that secured America’s global leadership, questions of our role in the world will be woven throughout. As Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations writes, “Fiscal solvency, industrial capacity, and technological prowess are essential ingredients of military primacy. So too is broadly shared prosperity a precondition for political solvency.”

We have seen that a principled, pragmatic and progressive approach to national security keeps Americans safe, builds our well-being at home and strengthens America’s power abroad. Addressing the challenges of the 21st century requires leadership that is able to recognize and draw from the true strength and potential of the American people. As NSN Executive Director Heather Hurlburt writes in Foreign Policy, “Barack Obama’s list of achievements on foreign policy and national security is long, but also diffuse.” From killing Osama bin Laden to bringing the Iraq War to an end to boosting exports and helping stabilize the economy, this is an approach founded on pragmatism and competence. In an ever-more complex world America’s interests are advanced by refocusing all the tools of national power – diplomatic, economic, military, intelligence, social and moral. What is the state of our union’s security? Strong on tackling core security challenges and urgently in need of national unity to rebuild the core sources of our strength at home – our economic might, our human resources, and our institutions and values.

Tackling Core Security Issues

Successfully combating terrorism:

Killing Osama bin Laden and taking the fight to al Qaeda. John Brennan, the career CIA officer who is the White House advisor on counterterrorism, summed up recent successes:  “We have affected al-Qa’ida’s ability to attract new recruits.  We’ve made it harder for them to hide and transfer money, and pushed al-Qa’ida’s finances to its weakest point in years.  Along with our partners, in Pakistan and Yemen, we’ve shown al-Qa’ida that it will enjoy no safe haven, and we have made it harder than ever for them to move, to communicate, to train, and to plot. Al-Qa’ida’s leadership ranks have been decimated, with more key leaders eliminated in rapid succession than at any time since 9/11.  For example, al-Qa’ida’s third-ranking leader, Sheik Saeed al-Masri-killed.  Ilyas Kashmiri, one of al-Qa’ida’s most dangerous commanders-reportedly killed.  Operatives of AQAP in Yemen, including Ammar al-Wa’ili, Abu Ali al-Harithi, and Ali Saleh Farhan-all killed.  Baitullah Mahsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban-killed.  Harun Fazul, the leader of al-Qa’ida in East Africa and the mastermind of the bombings of our embassies in Africa-killed by Somali security forces.  All told, over the past two and half years, virtually every major al-Qa’ida affiliate has lost its key leader or operational commander, and more than half of al-Qa’ida’s top leadership has been eliminated.” [John Brennan, 6/29/11]

Disrupting and preventing plots.  Law enforcement and counterterrorism officials have stamped out a number of plots at home, including the planned attack by Najibullah Zazi, which authorities called one of the most serious terrorism plots against Americans since Sept. 11, 2001.

Bringing a whole-of-country approach to counterterrorism. Bringing diplomatic, economic, intelligence and legal tools to the fight has resulted serious gains that have put al Qaeda on the run. The idea that occupying whole countries was an effective way to fight terrorism has failed. This approach works and is far more effective than the $3-4 trillion the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars will cost our society. And it gives every American a role in building our security and strengthening our national resilience.

Successfully bringing terrorists to justice. Over the past year there have been a number of terrorists brought to justice using the civilian court system, including Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called underwear bomber, and Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee sentenced for his role in the bombing of the USS Cole.

Libya: “Low-cost and high-reward.” The removal of Muammar Qaddafi – who Ronald Reagan called the “Mad Dog of the Middle East” – by the Libyan people with American and international support came at a very low-cost to the American people. Many conservatives have criticized the president’s handling of Libya as “leading from behind,” but as David Rothkopf explains, “’Leading from behind’ is an important element of this [Obama] doctrine. It is no insult to lead but let others feel they too are architects of a plan, to lead without making others feel you are bullying, to lead but do so in a way in which risks and other burdens are shared. Libya is a test case for this approach… Outcomes matter most and the outcome here has been low-cost and high-reward. More importantly, perhaps, it solidifies an Obama approach to meeting international threats that seems better suited to America’s current capabilities, comparative advantages, political mood and the preferences of our allies everywhere than prior approaches which were created in and tailored to far different times.”  [David Rothkopf, 10/20/11]

Weakening and isolating Iran. Fareed Zakaria writes, “the real story is that Iran is weak and getting weaker. Sanctions have pushed its economy into a nose-dive. The political system is fractured and fragmenting. Abroad, its closest ally and the regime of which it is almost the sole supporter — Syria — is itself crumbling. The Persian Gulf monarchies have banded together against Iran and shored up their relations with Washington … Saudi Arabia closed its largest-ever purchase of U.S. weaponry.” And as Rudy DeLeon and Brian Katulis of the Center for American progress explain, this is the result of a three-pronged strategy: “Unprecedented defense cooperation with regional allies that enhances their security and independence; An international coalition that holds Iran accountable for its actions; Smart, targeted economic sanctions.” [Fareed Zakaria, 1/4/11 Rudy DeLeon and Brian Katulis, 12/15/11]

Beginning transition of the war in Afghanistan. With successes against al Qaeda and the death of Osama bin Laden, President Obama has realigned America’s commitment in Afghanistan with our interests. The plans to withdraw the 33,000 U.S. “surge” troops from Afghanistan by the end of next summer and combat troops by 2014 is widely accepted by national security experts and has the support of the American public. [NSN, 10/6/11]

Ending the combat mission in Iraq.  Marc Lynch, a Middle East expert at George Washington University and the Center for a New American Security, explains that, “The last American troops officially left Iraq before Christmas, mostly completing an American withdrawal by the end of 2011 which few thought possible when then-candidate Barack Obama promised it or even when then-President George Bush formally committed to it…  Obama’s decision to complete the withdrawal from Iraq was probably better policy than it was politics — and it was the right call both for America and for Iraq.” This marked the culmination of years of effort to replace the failed invasion strategy with one that better serves core American interests. Challenges remain, but they demand Iraqi civilian solutions, not U.S. military ones. [Marc Lynch, 1/12/12. NSN, 8/31/10]

Refocusing on America’s Priorities

Cleaning up a mess. Strategic thinker David Rothkopf lays out the broad landscape: “The president came into office promising to get the United States out of a disliked war in Iraq and has kept the promise. He came in promising to shift the focus to Afghanistan and finishing the business of decapitating al Qaeda. He did both. Bin Laden is dead. And we are committed to coming home from Afghanistan, too. While the administration’s response to the first stirrings of rebellion in the Middle East — in Iran — was muddled and late, the overall approach has been constructive and the Libya chapter will stand out as a gamble that worked. Restoring relations with our European allies, engineering the ‘pivot’ in priorities to Asia cited by Secretary of State Clinton, and the recognition of the growing importance of dealing with emerging powers are all additional positive developments that are a credit to the president and his team.” [David Rothkopf, 10/20/11]

Strategic shift to the Pacific. President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s trips to Asia last November were the most recent initiatives to underscore the U.S. commitment to the region. Asia holds high standing because, as Clinton has written, “the future of the United States is intimately intertwined with the future of the Asia-Pacific. A strategic turn to the region fits logically into our overall global effort to secure and sustain America’s global leadership.” The Defense Strategic Guidance released issued by the Pentagon in January—the strategy document that sets priorities for defense spending during the next decade—was also unequivocal about the importance of Asia. With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down, it explains, “We will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region.” [Hillary Clinton, 11/11/11. Defense Strategic Guidance, 1/12]

Rebuilding alliances.

Asia: As Douglas Paal of the Carnegie Endowment writes, “The [November 2011] Obama trip [to Asia] was more about re-engaging the region after more than a decade of reduced U.S. attention… Japan has abandoned its flirtation with balancing its relationship with the United States and China. South Korea’s ties with the United States are stronger than ever. And Southeast Asian sentiment clearly favors the United States to continue to be a counterbalance to China’s increasingly overweening influence, welcoming its presence but also not looking for a fight with China.” [Douglas Paal, 12/6/11]

Israel: As Eli Lake of Newsweek reported last September, the Obama administration has given “support that has drawn the two nations’ militaries increasingly close even as their leaders seem politely distant. The aid, U.S. and Israeli officials confirmed to Newsweek, includes the long-delayed delivery of 55 powerful GBU-28 Hard Target Penetrators, better known as bunker-buster bombs, deemed important to any future military strike against Iranian nuclear sites. It also includes a network of proposed radar sites—some located in Arab neighbors—designed to help Israel repel a missile attack, as well as joint military exercises and regular national-security consultations. As Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak noted last August, “I can hardly remember a better period of support, American support and backing and cooperation and similar strategic understanding of events around us than what we have right now.” [Eli Lake, 9/25/11. Ehud Barak via Fox News, 8/3/11]

Europe: As Sam Charap, on leave from the Center for American Progress, has written, “the Baltic states  got the most concrete security commitment from NATO they could ask for: contingency plans within the alliance against an external attack… And despite the incessant claims that Obama’s missile-defense plan is both a sop to the Russians and an abandonment of Eastern Europe, his ‘phased, adaptive approach’ is a system that is both proven and designed to protect all of Europe from medium-range missiles from Iran — a threat the Pentagon believes to be quite real. Compare that with the previous system, which was unproven, did not actually protect the European continent, and was intended to counteract what the U.S. military says is a nonexistent threat: the Iranians’ launching an ICBM. It’s hard to see how the new plan could be interpreted as anything but a boost to the security of Russia’s neighbors.” That approach was underscored last December, when U.S. NATO envoy Ivo Daalder explained that the U.S. would complete an anti-ballistic missile shield to protect European allies against Iran “whether Russia likes it or not.” [Sam Charap, 6/16/10. Ivo Daalder via Reuters,12/2/11]

Cooperation and competition with China. The Obama administration is getting more cooperation from China where it counts: cooperation at the UN on imposing effective sanctions on Iran and preventing the slaughter of civilians in Libya are just two examples. As Bruce Jones, director of the Managing Global Order program at the Brookings Institution writes: “Washington and Beijing worked in close cooperation to respond to the global financial crisis and set up new tools for global financial regulation… the United States and China came together to push through governance reform of the IMF, despite resistance from America’s European allies.” The Obama administration has also worked with China’s neighbors to get China to back off when it has taken more aggressive positions on territorial  disputes in the South China Sea, for example. [Bruce Jones, 6/14/11. Hillary Clinton, Foreign Policy Magazine, 11/11]

Balancing America’s interests and values, not embracing simplistic rhetoric, on the Arab Spring. Duke Professor and former State Department official Bruce Jentleson explains further how simplistic and uninformed rhetoric can be harmful to our interests: “Blithe generalizations, binary thinking, and fear-mongering distort both the political dialogue and the analytic capacity needed to pursue policies differentiated according to the particular political dynamics of the various countries of the Arab world and the strategic challenges facing the United States.” This has been the approach of the Obama administration, which has carefully balanced America’s security interests with our values. [Bruce Jentleson, 7/11]

Making international institutions work to America’s advantage. The administration has gotten results on U.S. priorities by working to engage and reform international institutions: From curbing the financial crisis, to human rights abuses in Iran, to the monitoring of the radioactive plume from the Fukushima nuclear accident, to taking the front lines on Libya, other nations have shared costs and advanced U.S. interests around the globe.

What We’re Reading

Pro-Qaddafi forces retook control of the city Bani Walid just outside Tripoli.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticized France over the passage of a bill that criminalizes genocide denial.

Labor unions protested in Romania over the government’s austerity measures and called for the prime minister to step down.

Chinese police fired on a crowd of protestors in Tibet injuring more than thirty.

The Somali militant group al-Shabab claimed responsibility for a truck bomb that exploded at an Ethiopian military base.

Pakistan’s upper house of parliament demanded Pervez Musharraf be arrested and tried for treason for unconstitutional acts during his time in office.

Japan’s central bank predicted the economy will shrink slightly during the fiscal year.

The Colombian rebel group FARC destroyed a radar station killing one police officer.

The head of Arab League observers in Syria responded to claims that his team had failed to end in-country violence.

Xi Jinping, who is favored to become China’s next president, will meet with President Obama at the White House in February.

Commentary of the Day

Michael O’Hanlon contends that foreign policy will matter in the 2012 election.

Bruce Reidel argues Iran does not present an existential threat to the U.S. or Israel.

Olivier Roy marshals the evidence that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood have acquired “experience, legitimacy and respect.”

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