Anyone looking for clues in tomorrow’s night’s State of the Union address as to how Barack Obama intends to conduct himself on the foreign policy side in his next four years will have better luck reading tea leaves or goat entrails.
Part of the reason lies in the reality that SOTU addresses are by definition general in character; designed to cover the waterfront; and largely dedicated to domestic agenda, particularly now with the focus on the economy, gun control, and immigration reform.
Moreover, on the foreign policy side there’s really not a lot to crow about. Obama’s first four years were about extricating America from wars the public found increasing profitless; fighting terror and trying to improve America’s image in the world. That agenda produced a foreign policy best characterized as one with no spectacular successes (save killing Osama Bin Laden) and no spectacular failures either. And the future – imploding Syria, a nuclear Iran, and tough going on the two state solution – is one the administration has no answers or big initiatives for.
And I suspect that with the exception of highlighting his plans to reduce America’s nuclear arsenal, this year’s SOTU will follow the arc of the previous three in 2010, 2011, and 2012 – safe and conventional – dodging the issue of Syria, laying down traditional markers on Iran’s nuclear program and highlighting the President’s roles as extricator in chief from Iraq and Afghanistan, and point man on keeping the nation safe from terror.
One thing he presumably won’t do is to return to the high minded language of the 2009 SOTU in which he promised a new era of engagement in the world. In that speech the President also mentioned the Israeli-Palestinian peace process -- the last time he’d do so in a state of the union. It will be both fascinating and instructive -- in view of his visit to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan next month – whether he does so again tomorrow.
He’d also make John Kerry’s day by mentioning the fact that his new Secretary of State may be headed for the region to get things ready. But then again, this is the most withholding foreign policy president since Richard Nixon. Barack Obama dominates; he doesn’t delegate. I wouldn’t count on it.