3 Foreign Policy Issues Obama Should Address In the State Of the Union, But Won't

As the nation prepares to hear the first State of the Union speech of President Obama’s second term, there is little reason to think American foreign policy will be discussed at any great length. The reason for this is understandable; the nation’s lackluster economy directly affects far more Americans than do events overseas. While this sentiment is largely true, it risks overlooking the fact that some aspects of current American foreign policy do and will impact the lives and liberty of all Americans for years to come.

It behooves the president, particularly in this venue, to bring this reality to the attention of the American public. A failure to do so will only rob him of an opportunity to garner the level of public support necessary to address these challenges going forward. Unfortunately, and it pains me to admit this, President Obama will fail in this regard. Listed below are three key issues the president will fail to address either adequately or with any degree of substance tomorrow night.

1. Actually proposing a serious plan to tackle the national debt:


Photo Credit: Jesper Rautell Balle

One does not need to be a Republican to be disappointed with the president’s so-called "balanced approach" in tackling our country’s fiscal issues. Judging from the most recent "compromise” to the “fiscal cliff" negotiations, in which taxes were raised and spending cuts were averted entirely, it appears the Obama administration’s commitment to balance of any kind is an illusory one. This is most unfortunate, because this issue represents a truly momentous challenge (if not a threat), not only for the future of the nation’s public finances but also for the nation’s long-term economic health and international standing.

President Obama needs to drop the rhetorical fluff and put forward a plan to reform entitlements with his name on it. Not Harry Reid’s or Nancy Pelosi’s (Affordable Care Act), or John Boehner’s ("Cut, Cap and Balance," debt ceiling compromise, fiscal cliff compromise, or sequestration). He doesn’t have to pull a Bill Clinton-turns-policy-wonk performance, but he does need to give specifics.

2. Leveling with us on Afghanistan:


Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force

Given the disparity of knowledge between the American public and the President when it comes to issues of state and national security, there are few good reasons why the president should make his decision making process in such matters a subject for a State of the Union speech. Should he cite his policy on Afghanistan tomorrow evening, particularly regarding whether he thinks his troop surges were worth the human cost and whether a final political solution can be reached, I expect President Obama to follow this line of thought.

However, where he ought to be more open with the American public is with his administration’s decision last year to designate Afghanistan as a non-NATO U.S. Ally. The reason for this is twofold: the ruling government in Kabul is uniquely unqualified to receive such assistance, and such assistance would most likely need to be supplemented with a serious and costly U.S. troop commitment for an extended period of time. Simply put, no one really thinks the Afghan government can survive long-term without a protracted level of foreign aid and assistance.

Given both the increasing budgetary constraints in Washington as well as the human toll this conflict has burdened our military and their families with, such a commitment is worth at least a paragraph or two this Tuesday evening.    

3. Asking Congress to codify targeted assassinations into law:


Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force

If there were one policy area which President Obama ought to publically ‘punt’ to Congress on, it is in his policy of targeted assassinations. Most people mistakenly identify this problem as part and parcel of drone warfare in general. There is nothing inherently immoral or illegal about employing a drone in a combat environment. Indeed, one could argue that their use in counterterrorism operations along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border is necessary. Where the controversy lies is not in the use of a drone itself but in the legal parameters in which it operates.

Simply put, attempting to apply the laws of war, which were designed primarily for state based actors, to non-state actors in non-state, semi-state, or failed state contexts (such as in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and now greater North Africa) is problematic to say the least. What constitutes a warzone? Should the Executive Branch request a new congressional authorization to conduct drone surveillance or strikes every time an Al-Qaeda cell metastasizes across a border into another state? Why is there civilian involvement in supposedly military grade decisions (i.e. "kill lists")? Where are the legal recourses for someone who is accused of being a terrorist, if any? Where is the legal mechanism by which the determination of guilt for the accused is determined? Why is the executive branch playing the role of judge, jury and executioner? Where is the inter-branch accountability for this policy?

In short this policy, which is bipartisan, represents nothing less than the greatest frontal assault on the American rule of law in living memory: a truly unaccountable executive ruling by arbitrary fiat without institutional accountability. Drone warfare and counterterrorism ought to be preserved, but only within the context of a legitimate constitutional legal framework. President Obama should ask Congress to present him with just such a framework.