It’s one thing for a president of the United States of America to use his annual State of the Union address to accentuate the positive. It’s quite another for him to eliminate the negative.
President Barack Obama was right last night to take a victory lap on the economy. He had sufficient facts and figures to support his claim that the “state of the union is strong.” But he was not right to be less than fully forthcoming about the state of the world within which this union is situated. In the realm of foreign affairs he dissembled to a degree that was a discredit.
First, he gave America’s foreign policy short shrift, as if what happened outside the US was of minor importance. Second, more critically, his comments – especially on Putin and terrorism – were misleading and misinforming.
It is correct to say that Russia is more “isolated” now than it was one year ago. But it would have been important to add that the reason for this is the success of Putin’s foreign policy, at least from the vantage point of Russia. In the last year Russia seized Crimea, and there is no sign that anyone anywhere is prepared to seize it back. And, in the last year Russia made mischief in Ukraine, which, as I write, shows no sign whatsoever of abating. By sowing the seeds of conflict in Eastern Ukraine, Russia is accomplishing one of its most important foreign policy objectives: to prevent Ukraine from becoming a strong and independent state allied with the West.
On terrorism generally, and on ISIL specifically, the president was even more disingenuous. For him to claim that “In Iraq and Syria, American leadership – including our military power – is stopping ISIL’s advance” is contrary to all the evidence. Maybe the president knows something that the American people do not. But so far as I can tell it is Gideon Rachman, writing in the Financial Times, who is correct – and Obama who is not. On January 20th Rachman wrote that, “there are two specific ways in which the threat from militant Islamism has worsened over the past five years. First, jihadi groups are operating in more parts of the world. Second, the frequency of attacks and number of deaths are increasing.” In short, “the ‘war on terror’ is going backwards.”
Presidents cannot be blamed for using the State of the Union address to tout their presidencies and policies. But their feet should be held to the fire if they use the occasion to shade the truth.