WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama began and ended his State of the Union speech on Tuesday by reminding voters that he brought U.S. troops home from Iraq and dispatched the Navy Seals who killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
But he said little about the vexing challenges he faces in those countries and others, from preparing Afghanistan to police itself after foreign troops pull out in 2014, to preventing sectarian strife in Iraq, containing a nuclear North Korea and trying to prevent the euro crisis from sinking U.S. recovery.
Obama said nothing about the deterioration in U.S.-Pakistani relations last year, notably after a November 26 NATO attack on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, and made little reference to China other than as an economic rival.
The U.S. economy consumed the majority of Obama’s 66-minute speech, a logical choice given the domestic concerns of voters who must decide on November 6 whether to re-elect him or to choose instead one of his Republican rivals.
Analysts said the speech was striking for the way in which Obama held out the teamwork of the U.S. military as a model for the country and, implicitly, as a rebuke to the deeply divided U.S. Congress over the gridlock in Washington.
“One of the complaints that the president’s political opponents would make about his foreign policy is that he wants to negotiate with our enemies instead of fight them,” said Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“He is giving a speech which is all about the importance of emulating our military,” he added. “This is a democratic president wrapping himself in the flag and surrounding himself with the images of military teamwork.”
Obama opened the speech with what may be his signal foreign policy achievements: killing bin Laden and keeping his promise to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq even if sectarian tensions have flared since their departure last month.
“For the first time in nine years, there are no Americans fighting in Iraq. For the first time in two decades, Osama bin Laden is not a threat to this country,” Obama said.
“These achievements are a testament to the courage, selflessness, and teamwork of America’s armed forces. At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, they exceed all expectations,” he added.
Daniel Serwer, a former U.S. diplomat, suggested the speech was implicitly about limiting American commitments abroad even as Obama argued that the United States has not lost influence in the world and remains “the indispensable nation.”
“If this is a prelude to the campaign, as rightly it should be, it presages an ever more economically focused foreign policy, with security issues narrowed to a few top priorities and little focus on diplomacy except on a few specific issues,” Serwer, who is now at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, wrote in his blog.
“This is a vision for restoring American economic strength at home, not increasing - or perhaps even maintaining - its commitments abroad,” he said. “This is called retrenchment.”
In many respects, the limited foreign policy portions of the speech could be read as ripostes to Republican lines of attack against Obama, including that he is presiding over an America in decline and that he not tough enough against Iran.
Obama entered office stressing his interest in negotiation with Iran over its nuclear program, a position his predecessor George W. Bush came to only reluctantly. Obama thus left himself open to criticism that his policy was not muscular enough.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, for example, in November flatly said that “if we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon and ... if you elect me as the next president, they will not have a nuclear weapon.”
Obama fired back.
“Let there be no doubt: America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal,” he said, using a Washington codeword for the possibility of a military strike.
“But a peaceful resolution of this issue is still possible, and far better, and if Iran changes course and meets its obligations, it can rejoin the community of nations,” he added.
The West, which suspects Tehran of using its nuclear program as a cover to develop atomic weapons, has tightened sanctions on Iran in the last month by seeking to choke off its oil sales, the life blood of the Islamic Republic’s economy.
Iran says its program is only to generate electricity. As the United States and the European Union have tightened sanctions, it has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which almost one-fifth of oil traded worldwide flows.
Republican presidential candidates including former speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich and former Senator Rick Santorum have accused Obama of appeasement and argued that he has presided over an enfeebled America.
Obama rejected that argument. “Anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” Obama said.
“Yes, the world is changing. No, we can’t control every event. But America remains the one indispensable nation in world affairs -- and as long as I‘m president, I intend to keep it that way,” he added.
Michael O‘Hanlon of the Brookings Institution said Obama had little choice but to assert American strength and said that in his view, the narrative of American decline was exaggerated.
“Even if decline is happening, no American president can admit on the verge of his reelection campaign that it is happening on his watch. That would just be horrible politics,” O‘Hanlon said.
Reporting By Arshad Mohammed