Obama to GOP: More Iran sanctions lead to War (& 7 other Foreign Policy points in SOTU)

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) —

President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address slighted foreign policy in favor of touting domestic progress and proposing new domestic initiatives. But there were some foreign policy highlights worth underlining.

1. Obama pushed back hard against hawks like Senator John McCain, who want to ramp up a conventional US military presence in a number of countries, including Syria. Obama said,

“Will we approach the world fearful and reactive, dragged into costly conflicts that strain our military and set back our standing? Or will we lead wisely, using all elements of our power to defeat new threats and protect our planet?

Will we allow ourselves to be sorted into factions and turned against one another, or will we recapture the sense of common purpose that has always propelled America forward?”

He added:

“When we make rash decisions, reacting to the headlines instead of using our heads; when the first response to a challenge is to send in our military, then we risk getting drawn into unnecessary conflicts, and neglect the broader strategy we need for a safer, more prosperous world. That’s what our enemies want us to do.

I believe in a smarter kind of American leadership. We lead best when we combine military power with strong diplomacy; when we leverage our power with coalition building; when we don’t let our fears blind us to the opportunities that this new century presents.”

So his keynotes are a preference for diplomacy over military commitments, and where diplomacy is not enough, a preference for coalitions over unilateral American action. We’ve seen these principles in action in the Ukraine, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

Obama does not use the diction of the War on Terror, but he continued to highlight counter-terrorism as a keystone of US policy abroad. He said,


“First, we stand united with people around the world who’ve been targeted by terrorists, from a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris.

We will continue…


… to hunt down terrorists and dismantle their networks, and we reserve the right to act unilaterally, as we have done relentlessly since I took office, to take out terrorists who pose a direct threat to us and our allies.”

“Hunting down” and unilateral drone strikes– what is implied here– are not actually very sophisticated counter-terrorism tactics.

Obama went on to argue for coalition building as a means to counter terrorism. He said,

“At the same time, we’ve learned some costly lessons over the last 13 years.

Instead of Americans patrolling the valleys of Afghanistan, we’ve trained their security forces, who’ve now taken the lead, and we’ve honored our troops’ sacrifice by supporting that country’s first democratic transition.

Instead of sending large ground forces overseas, we’re partnering with nations from South Asia to North Africa to deny safe haven to terrorists who threaten America.”

I think it is too soon to tell if the Afghanistan National Army will fight and stand against the Taliban without US military back-up. After all, the new Iraqi army the US equipped and trained just collapsed in June.

Then Obama turned to his current wars, in Iraq and Syria:


“In Iraq and Syria, American leadership, including our military power, is stopping ISIL’s advance. Instead of getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East, we are leading a broad coalition, including Arab nations, to degrade and ultimately destroy this terrorist group.


We’re also supporting a moderate opposition in Syria that can help us in this effort and assisting people everywhere who stand up to the bankrupt ideology of violent extremism.”

It is true that US and other bombing campaigns did halt the advances of Daesh (ISIL or ISIS). But it is also true that Daesh has actually continued to gain territory in the al-Anbar province and in Eastern Syria.

And, from all accounts, Obama failed to recruit Turkey to a significant role the effort against al-Qaeda offshoots

Daesh (ISIS or ISIL) has been somewhat contained but not rolled back or destroyed Aside from dropping some bombs, It is hard to see what the “neighbors” have done.

“Now, this effort will take time. It will require focus. But we will succeed. And tonight, I call on this Congress to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL.


We need that authority.”

Obama had tried to have Congress own the Syrian intervention in fall of 2013 (it was not clear he would get a majority in that vote if it had been held. Here he is, trying again. Politically, this step works for him, since his Republican critics likely have to go along, and so become coopted to his policies.

Then he turned to Cuba:


In Cuba, we are ending a policy…


…that was long past its expiration date.


When what you’re doing doesn’t work for 50 years, it’s time to try something new.


And our shift in Cuba policy has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere and removes the phony excuse for restrictions in Cuba, stands up for democratic values and extends the hand of friendship to the Cuban people.

And this year, Congress should begin the work of ending the embargo.


As — as his Holiness, Pope Francis, has said, diplomacy is the work of small steps. These small steps have added up to new hope for the future in Cuba.

Obama worked Cuba into his policies of smart engagement, though his Havana policy is the opposite of his Ukraine policy. He is dealing with Putin through boycotts, but ending the boycott on Fidel.

then the president spoke of his Iran negotiations:


“Our diplomacy is at work with respect to Iran, where, for the first time in a decade, we’ve halted the progress of its nuclear program and reduced its stockpile of nuclear material.

Between now and this spring, we have a chance to negotiate a comprehensive agreement that prevents a nuclear-armed Iran, secures America and our allies, including Israel, while avoiding yet another Middle East conflict.

There’re no guarantees that negotiations will succeed, and I keep all options on the table to prevent a nuclear Iran. But new sanctions passed by this Congress at this moment in time will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails, alienating America from its allies, making it harder to maintain sanctions and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again. It doesn’t make sense. That is why I will veto any new sanctions bill that threatens to undo this progress.


The American people expect us to only go to war as a last resort, and I intend to stay true to that wisdom.

Obama is taking a hard line here against AIPAC and the Israel lobbies, which are influential both with Republicans and Democrats in Congress. AIPAC had campaigned to get further sanctions on Iran, probably in hopes of torpedoing the current negotiations. The Likud government of Israel, for which AIPAC is an unlicensed foreign agent, does not believe that negotiations can succeed, and wants the US to force Iran to give up nuclear enrichment altogether.

Obama is pointing out that derailing the negotiations de facto, means going to war with Iran down the road. Most Americans in polling side with Obama on this one.


Third, we’re looking beyond the issues that have consumed us in the past to shape the coming century.

No foreign nation, no hacker, should be able to shut down our networks, steal our trade secrets, or invade the privacy of American families, especially our kids.”

This part was so disappointing because frankly dishonest. The US National Security Agency has deliberately weakened encryption standards and is itself intensively spying on the metadata of private citizens in unconstitutional ways. Likewise disappointing was this:

And There’s one last pillar of our leadership, and that’s the example of our values.

As Americans, we respect human dignity, even when we’re threatened, which is why I’ve prohibited torture, and worked to make sure our use of new technology like drones is properly constrained. ”

Obama’s drone program, as Jeremy Scahill has pointed out, is opaque, extrajudicial and lacking in oversight. It isn’t “constrained” at all. On government eavesdropping and on drones, Obama has a blind spot and is a conservative rather than a liberal, eschewing checks and balances and declining to privilege human rights over government prerogatives.

Finally, Obama said welcome things about climate change, but his energy policy of ‘all of the above’ contradicts what he said about green energy. If it truly is a key challenge, then we can’t celebrate new shale oil rigs.


“We believed we could reduce our dependence on foreign oil and protect our planet. And today, America is number one in oil and gas. America is number one in wind power. Every three weeks, we bring online as much solar power as we did in all of 2008.”

What kind of climate change activism is it to boast of producing more shale petroleum?? How can Obama have this blind spot? Hydrocarbons are evil, and we should get off them ASAP. The US increased its carbon dioxide output in 2014, back up to 5.5 billion metric tons.

A different course of action was suggested by Obama’s further remarks:

“2014 was the planet’s warmest year on record.

Now, one year doesn’t make a trend, but this does: 14 of the 15 warmest years on record have all fallen in the first 15 years of this century.

I’ve heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they’re not scientists, that we don’t have enough information to act. Well, I’m not a scientist either. But you know what? I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA and at NOAA and at our major universities, and the best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we don’t act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration and conflict and hunger around the globe. The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it.


That’s why, over the past six years, we’ve done more than ever to combat climate change, from the way we produce energy, to the way we use it. That’s why we’ve set aside more public lands and waters than any administration in history. And that’s why I will not let this Congress endanger the health of our children by turning back the clock on our efforts. I am determined to make sure American leadership drives international action.


In Beijing, we made a historic announcement: the United States will double the pace at which we cut carbon pollution, and China committed, for the first time, to limiting their emissions. And because the world’s two largest economies came together, other nations are now stepping up, and offering hope that, this year, the world will finally reach an agreement to protect the one planet we’ve got.

8 Finally, Obama took a stand against both Antisemitism and Anti-Muslimism:

The American value of dignity, Obama said, impelled an opposition to hate speech toward religious groups, whether it be Sikhs or Muslims.

“It’s why we speak out against the deplorable anti-Semitism that has resurfaced in certain parts of the world.


It’s why we continue to reject offensive stereotypes of Muslims, the vast majority of whom share our commitment to peace. That’s why we defend free speech and advocate for political prisoners and condemn the persecution of women or religious minorities or people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.”

Obama’s insistence on rejecting Islamophobia is precisely the kind of policy needed to combat al-Qaeda’s sneaky “sharpening of contradictions” strategy.

As I have argued before, Obama’s Syria policy is a mess, consisting more of talking points (supporting the virtually non-existent ‘moderate rebels’ while bombing Daesh) than of practical strategy. And, he makes more of his current Iraq policy than is warranted; so far he is just doing containment, with mixed results, and nothing more.

It is not clear that Obama even has a Yemen policy, and strange that he did not say more about that crisis and its implications for the US.

And, his “all of the above” energy policy is lacking in courage. He is trying to make oil and coal workers happy while trying to retain the environmentalists. I don’t think it will work because it is too unwieldy. There are anyway now 120,000 solar workers in the US, and only 80,000 direct coal miners.

But on the positive side, Obama has avoided new conventional wars and is winding down Afghanistan. He responded to the Iraq crisis in a limited and prudent way. He wants the negotiations with Iran to succeed. IN all of that, he is superior to a Mitt Romney, who actually ran on a more aggressive, Neoconservative foreign and military policy.


Related video:

The White House: “President Obama’s 2015 State of the Union Address”

14 Responses

  1. More sanctions on Iran will lead to war but more sanctions on Russia won’t?

    Someday O-bomb-er should explain that one to us.

  2. Obama said, “When what you’re doing doesn’t work for 50 years, it’s time to try something new.”

    Substituting ’25’ for ’50’ in this sentence, it might have occurred to him that this concept should apply to the Israeli-Palestinian ‘peace talks’.

    And maybe he could refrain from using his veto at the UN Security Council in order to keep Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy in the same unproductive rut in which Israel continues its ethnic cleansing policies while the Palestinians get nothing but verbiage.

  3. Wise observation, Dr. Cole, among the others you make: ““Hunting down” and unilateral drone strikes– what is implied here– are not actually very sophisticated counter-terrorism tactics.” When fighting an electrical or petroleum fire, the first thing one does is try to shut off the current, or close the valves on the tanks and pipelines. The “blow it up” tactic might work to put out an oil well blowout, a la Red Adair, long enough to cap the well. Not so much for the other stuff. Nor does cranking up the generating stations or pumping more oil or gas into the tanks and lines…

  4. Obama is taking a hard line here against AIPAC and the Israel lobbies, which are influential both with Republicans and Democrats in Congress.

    And the Republicans (with probable support of right-wing Democrats) are taking a hard line against Obama by inviting Netanyahu to address Congress on Iran in February when all but very, very few senators and representatives will bounce up and down like trained seals in a circus to applaud Netanyahu’s bellicosity.

  5. It looks like I made the right choice in ignoring Obama’s speech: “Progressive Voices Cut Through Fog of Obama’s State of the Union: For the sixth time of his presidency, Obama offered his assessment of the nation and lays out his vision for future policy, but voices on the Left had a few things to say as well.” By Common Dreams staff link to commondreams.org

  6. Although I disagree with most of your observations,I am amazed at your hard work and diligence ,especially the scope and depth that go into your posts…

  7. Thanks for pointing out the nonsense in his statement that greater domestic production and reduced imports somehow translates into a benefit for the planet. Increasing tight oil and gas production has a higher CO2 emission per btu than Imported oil from conventional sources.
    I wish Obama didn’t slip into the “We’re number one in oil and gas” as though that means anything. Unlike number two, three we aren’t an exporter.

    In the statistics for US “oil” production there is a pile of things that provide a larger production number but not reflecting actual crude with an API below 45 that can be used to make transportation fuels. Bio-fuels, natural gas liquids, increased condensate, refinery gain (volumetric increase) are all lumped into that “we’re number one”

    I’m afraid Obama will or cannot do anything to confront popular delusions about our fossil fuel resources.

  8. I never watch the SOTU address because it’s commonly such a grab-bag mixture of truth and falsehood, self-serving boasting and laughable attempts at humility. That there will be anything said that one can depend on…well, one might as well flip a coin to determine what the administration will do based on the president’s words. Nevertheless, thank you for your careful analysis of what he said

  9. Re your headline. Dem Menendez of NJ is a leader of the Iran war movement. It’s not just the Repubs.

  10. Thanks for this excellent analysis, but I take exception to this:

    “The Likud government of Israel, for which AIPAC is an unlicensed foreign agent, does not believe that negotiations can succeed, and wants the US to force Iran to give up nuclear enrichment altogether.”

    On the contrary, the Israeli Right fears that the negotiations will succeed, giving them one less excuse for the fearmongering they find so convenient for both domestic and international political purposes.

  11. Obama needs to be blunt with the American public and ask they point blank questions, like:

    – Do you want war with Iran which will gets lots of Americans and Iranians killed while wasting trillions of dollars?

    – Are you OK with Iran maybe winning?

    – Are you willing to see your sons and daughters die for Israel?

    Obama needs to make it very, very real for Americans what war with Iran will be like and force the GOP and Democratic war hawks to defend their position.

    That is, Obama needs to be much more aggressive with the war hawks (unfortunately, Obama has not shown any capacity to actually fight for what he believes – Oabma will flake out on this just like he has every other issue)

    • spy guy,
      you presume that this President has “core beliefs” other than getting Democrats elected.

      Links, plz.

  12. US Hegemony, one coin with two sides.
    We can blow up anyone who resists our domination, or threaten to,
    the military side,
    or we can explain to them how resistance, which is futile, will lead to their ruination —
    the diplomacy side.

    here we are in the 21st century,
    and we as a nation still cannot treat other nations as deserving of respect.

    And the funny thing is,
    it ain’t us 99%’ers who are deriving the benefits of hegemony,
    but the 1%’ers have us conditioned to believe that their exploitation of the 99%’ers in other lands is somehow to our benefit.

Comments are closed.