Obama ran the gamut of foreign policy issues in his speech and covered more on that front than most commentators expected.
Overall, Obama outlined a nuanced and firm but not particularly groundbreaking foreign policy agenda, instead emphasizing previous commitments like nuclear nonproliferation and troop drawdowns in Afghanistan. SOTU demonstrated his administration's shift (vs. the Bush administration) to a less splashy foreign policy framework that utilizes diplomacy and military aid over direct confrontation and military action.
I live-blogged foreign policy in the SOTU for PolicyMic here, and here are the biggest takeaways:
1. Diplomacy First
Despite calls to pursue more military options with regard to Syria and Iran, Obama made it clear that he plans to stay the course with diplomatic engagement.
This will likely be a disappointment both to liberals who are concerned about human rights issues in Syria – earlier today, the U.N. High Commisioner on Human Rights announced that nearly 70,000 civilians have died in the nearly two-year conflict – as well as to hawks that are concerned about Iranian progress towards nuclear capabilities.
2. Transition to Surrogacy Approach to Counterterrorism
Obama announced a 34,000-troop drawdown in Afghanistan and promised that "by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over." He discussed a transition to a counterterrorism model in Afghanistan similar to what the White House has pursued in Somalia and Mali: supporting local governments' counterterrorism efforts through funding and training but not American troop deployments.
Obama said: "Instead, we will need to help countries like Yemen, Libya, and Somalia provide for their own security, and help allies who take the fight to terrorists, as we have in Mali."
The U.S. has provided funding and operational support to the French efforts against Al-Qaeda in northern Mali but have avoided direct involvement, which appears to be the preferred White House counterterrorism model going forward.
3. Nuclear Nonproliferation Remains a Priority
Obama announced efforts towards nuclear nonproliferation on a number of fronts, including pursuing diplomacy with Iran, international action against North Korea and mutual arms reductions with Russia. You can be sure that each country mentioned is now on alert for new U.S. action on that front.
4. A Hint on Drones
While Obama did not explicitly address the topic of drones, you can be sure that plenty will be read into his statement that "in the months ahead, I will continue to engage with Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world."
His statement indicates that Obama may directly address concerns that have been raised about the legal framework underlying the drone policy.