World Affairs

A National Security Analyst’s Take on The State of the Union Speech

January 29, 2014  • Clark Ervin

In response to last night’s State of the Union address, Aspen Institute program directors are reacting to President Barack Obama’s promises to tackle some of the biggest issues facing the nation today. Below, Clark Kent Ervin, director of the Aspen Institute Homeland Security Program, explains why foreign policy was not a major part of the president’s speech. 

The president’s comments last night in the State of the Union speech were notable from the perspective of a national security analyst for a number of reasons. For one thing, of course, relatively little attention was paid to the topic, only a few paragraphs in an hour-long speech, at a time when the number and complexity of security challenges facing our nation has arguably never been greater. To some degree, of course, to be frank about it, this is simply a recognition of the average American’s ignorance of foreign affairs and disinterest in them.

More importantly, the president’s explanation of his national security strategy reminded me of President Clinton’s declaration a couple of decades ago that “the era of big government is over.”  It is clear after last night, if there was ever any doubt, that the era of the “Big Military” is over, at least as long as Barack Obama is president (absent, of course, a “game changer” like another 9/11-scale attack or something like a nuclear crisis with North Korea).

In my view, the president is right to argue that we can ill-afford (in blood and in treasure) the open-ended, years-long, massive land invasions and occupations that we launched in 2001 in Afghanistan and 2003 in Iraq. And, he is also right, in my view, that intervening in such a fashion is exactly the kind of engagement that our enemies want us to engage in because it ties us down, Gulliver-like, ultimately sapping our OWN strength, while not accomplishing our larger objective, or even, making things worse. Famously and woefully, it’s deja-vu all over again in Iraq, with cities falling to al Qaeda. (In fact, it’s worse than deja-vu; al Qaeda wasn’t in Iraq, to speak of, before our invasion). And, does anyone doubt that Afghanistan is likely to fall to the Taliban the minute the US leaves?

The president is also right that the military is not the only tool in our national security toolkit. And, depending on the particulars, it may well not be the best one. There is at least an equal role for diplomacy, covert action and intelligence gathering (made harder, certainly, by the Snowden revelations and the outsize reaction to them, in my view), development, and strategic communications.

There was one discordant note. The line, “I have used force when needed to protect the American people, and I will never hesitate to do so as long as I hold this office,” struck me as off-key, given his “on again/off again” approach last year to a military strike on Syria in retaliation for Assad’s use of chemical weapons on his people. For a while, he argued that such a strike was absolutely necessary to protect the American people. And, then, for some still unclear reason, he changed course and decided, essentially, that Congress could decide the issue, and, then, that military action was unnecessary after all thanks to the wonders of Russian diplomacy. In the run-up to a strike, there was no talk of an “open-ended” commitment or of ANY deployment of American troops.

Still, all in all,  I think it was an eloquent and persuasive call for the “humble” foreign policy that candidate George W. Bush promised to pursue. Kind of reminds me of the Churchillian dictum, paraphrasing, “America always does the right thing, after exhausting all the alternatives.”