from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Obama’s State of the Union: Epitaph for Neoconservatism

January 29, 2014 3:16 pm (EST)

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As anticipated, President Obama’s State of the Union address focused overwhelmingly on domestic matters, notably steps to close the yawning income inequality in American society. Still, the speech contained important signals about Barack Obama’s approach to U.S. foreign policy in his last 1,000 days in office. Beyond a full-throated declaration that “climate change is a fact” and a plea to “fix our broken immigration system,” three broad leitmotifs jumped out. The first was the need to return to normalcy after a dozen frenzied years of the global war on terrorism. The second was the imperative of giving diplomacy a chance to resolve the gravest security threats. The third, more rhetorical than substantive, was the necessity of reframing the language of American exceptionalism.

Collectively, these themes signaled the president’s determination to bury troubling vestiges of neoconservatism that had survived the Bush years.

  • “America must move off a permanent war footing.” Obama’s most dramatic statement of the night acknowledged the obvious. More than twelve years after 9/11, the United States must jettison its single-minded focus on the global war on terror overseas and rein in the domestic garrison state created in the aftermath of those attacks. As my colleague Micah Zenko notes, the United States has rarely been more secure. And yet the Obama administration has maintained and (in the cases of NSA eavesdropping and drone strikes) even expanded upon the overreaching homeland security and counterterrorism policies of its predecessor. The United States would need “to remain vigilant” against a new, decentralized network of al-Qaeda franchises, working with partner countries to deny them safe haven.

But Obama declared that he would refuse to send America’s “sons and daughters to be mired in open-ended conflicts” that “may ultimately feed extremism.” Beyond ending “America’s longest war” in Afghanistan, the president promised a more normal foreign policy “true to our constitutional deals,” including reasonable limits on U.S. surveillance programs and, finally, the closure of detention facility in Guantanamo.

These were welcome words indeed. For the past dozen years, U.S. pursuit of a boundless  “war on terrorism” has too often brought to mind the “perpetual war” footing of Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. Obama’s declaration promises to bring this era to a close.

  • “If JFK and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today.” After being pilloried by conservatives for engaging Iran in nuclear negotiations, Obama went on the offensive last night. If two hallowed cold warriors could bargain with a nuclear-armed superpower, why in heaven’s name shouldn’t the United States, operating from a position of strength, seek a peaceful, diplomatic resolution to the Iranian challenge?  The president was “clear-eyed” about Iranian trustworthiness, he said, including its support for Hezbollah. But “American diplomacy,” he insisted, “has halted the progress of Iran’s nuclear program”, and that country has “begun to eliminate its stockpile” of highly enriched uranium. With this success hanging in the balance, he promised to veto any new sanctions bill from Congress that threatened to scuttle this progress—and the opportunity for Iran to “rejoin the community of nations.” If Iranian treachery were revealed, he himself would lead the charge for new sanctions. In keeping with his realist bent, the president made it clear that altering Iran’s nuclear policy, not its repressive internal politics, is priority number one. This is a far cry from the “freedom agenda” George W. Bush touted not long ago.

  • “No other country in the world does what we do.” One of the cleverest of Obama’s recent rhetorical shifts has been to don the garb of American exceptionalism, which Republicans have sought to seize for themselves. Not long ago, invoking the uniqueness of the United States was a bipartisan affair. Who can forget Madeleine Albright’s paeans to the “indispensable nation” which “stands taller and sees farther” than other nations?

Obama, however, got off to a shaky start. Already subjected to scurrilous whispers (then roars) about his citizenship, the new president made an accurate but politically naïve observation in 2009. Yes, he responded to a questioner, Americans believed themselves to be exceptional, just as the Brits believe in “British exceptionalism” and the Greeks in “Greek exceptionalism.” Predictably, the Republican high dudgeon machine went into overdrive, with luminaries like John Bolton—no stranger to the politics of division—tarring Obama as “the first post-American president.” It was another opportunity for (neo)conservative ideologues—having earlier wrapped themselves in the bloody flag of 9/11—to prove Samuel Johnson’s adage, “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.”

Fortunately, Obama has begun to remind Americans that no party has a monopoly on love of country, and that furthermore, what makes the United States exceptional is not merely its dedication to individual rights but (as he said last night) a “spirit of citizenship” that leavens the pursuit of “individual dreams” with the recognition that we can and must “still come together as one American family.”


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