If you want to know what an American president's foreign policy is likely to be, particularly in a second term, don't listen to his State of the Union speech. You'd probably have more luck playing with Tarot cards, or reading tea leaves or goat entrails.
But not this year. Barack Obama's fourth such address left a trail of foreign-policy cookie crumbs that lead directly to some pretty clear, if hardly surprising or revolutionary, conclusions. His first term contained no spectacular successes (save killing Osama bin Laden), but no spectacular failures either. And more than likely, that's what the president will settle for in a second, even as the Arab world burns and rogues like Iran and North Korea brandish new weapons. He's nothing if not a cautious man.
Behold: I am the Extricator in Chief
Afghanistan -- the "good war" -- has been pretty much MIA in Obama's speeches since he became president. He's alternated between spending a few words on the mission there (2009) or a paragraph (2010, 2011, 2012). If his words have been brief, the message has been stunningly clear: It's about the leaving. And tonight was no exception. Not more than two minutes in, the president spoke about America's men and women coming home from Afghanistan.
Obama's signature is indeed that of the extricator. And he broke the code early (the 2009 surge was designed politically to get in so that he could get out with a clearer conscience). He is the president who has wound down the longest and among the most profitless wars in American history, where victory was never defined by whether we can win, but by when can we leave. It is his legacy, and one about which he has reason to be proud. Obama has left himself and his military commanders plenty of discretion about the pace of extrication. But that's fine with the president so long as they're heading for the exits.
Not the Destroyer and Rebuilder of Worlds
Surprise, surprise: There was scant mention of Syria in the president's speech -- just one throwaway line about supporting Syria's opposition. Obama did not disengage from Iraq and Afghanistan only to plunge America into new black holes in the Middle East.
Obama isn't worried about boots on the ground in Syria. That was never on the table. Instead the question is this: Given the uncertainty about the end state in Syria and the risks of providing serious weapons to the rebels (and a no-fly zone) that might alter the arc of the fight against the regime, the president saw and continues to see no purpose in America providing arms of marginal utility. That course would either expose him to be truly weak and ineffectual or lead to calls to do more. So he's going to provide non-lethal support and is apparently prepared to take the hits from critics who see the president's policy as passive, cruel, and unforgiving, particularly now that we know that members of his own cabinet clearly wanted to do more.
The Iranian nuclear issue, the other potential tar baby in the SOTU, followed a pretty predictable rising arc of concern in the list of presidential foreign-policy worries. In 2009, in Obama's address to a joint session of Congress (a speech some regard as a SOTU), Iran wasn't even mentioned. In the 2010 SOTU, Obama threatened that if Iran ignored its international obligations, there would be consequences; in 2011, he did the same; and in 2012, he made it clear that he would prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and take no option off the table.
Obama repeated half of what he said in 2012 about preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, but instead of saying all options were on the table, he spoke of the importance of diplomacy. I suspect he'll go to extreme lengths to avoid war, and won't greenlight an Israeli attack either until the arc of diplomacy has run its course. And then Obama would likely act only if the mullahs push the envelope by accelerating their uranium enrichment program and other military aspects of the nuclear enterprise.