Obama’s 7 State of the Union talking points. No. 5: Ending the war in Afghanistan

President Obama will deliver his sixth State of the Union address on Tuesday. The Fix is previewing Obama’s major themes and challenges in the speech, focusing on one issue a day leading up to the address. Today’s talking point is foreign policy. Click here for talking point #4 on immigrationClick here for talking point #3 on early childhood educationClick here for talking point #2 on saving the planetAnd click here for talking point #1 on defending Obamacare.

This is the year the war ends.


US NATO's soldiers inspect the site of a suicide bomb blast that targeted a NATO military base in Zherai district of Kandahar, Afghanistan, 20 January 2014.  EPA/I. SAMEEM

State of the Union addresses during President Obama’s five years in office have never had the question of America’s place in the world as a centerpiece. This State of the Union will be no different given that it begins the last year Obama can plausibly expect real progress on his domestic agenda, at least when it comes to working with a divided Congress.

But on Tuesday night before a prime-time audience, he will be able to highlight a milestone in America’s long post-Sept. 11, 2001, period of war and terrorism – a stretch of time he once called “a season of fear.” The U.S. military’s participation in the Afghanistan war – this nation’s longest - will conclude at the end of the year.

Obama is still hoping his Afghan counterpart, Hamid Karzai, will sign the negotiated agreement setting out the U.S. military role beyond 2014. That could include leaving as many as 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan to serve a mostly training and counter-terrorism mission. It is uncertain whether Karzai will do so, and if not, the U.S. military departs in full by default.

Ending America’s military involvement in Afghanistan  – after doing the same in Iraq two years ago – will be a part of Obama’s historic legacy. Both nations are still fragile, violent, and politically fraught. But the end of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, at least as it has been fought for the past dozen years, will likely mark a promises-kept note in the State of the Union and a warning of sorts to Karzai.

Obama will have other foreign policy initiatives to discuss, namely the first substantive negotiations to scale back Iran’s nuclear program. Already key parts of the enrichment program have been frozen with U.S. and European sanctions reduced in response.

The more difficult task lies ahead, as Obama works with European powers to persuade Iran to begin dismantling its enrichment program. He will likely make the case for patience in the State of the Union, especially with the Senate, which is now considering new sanctions against Iran that the president believes could scuttle negotiations.

Obama also will likely mention the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which began last year and are being shepherded by Secretary of State John F. Kerry. There have been no breakthroughs, but the two sides remain at the table after six rocky months, a modest success in itself measured against the rapid collapse of direct talks in Obama’s first term.

Obama will have less to be optimistic about concerning Syria, where U.S., Russian and European peace efforts are struggling to gain momentum. The civil war nears its three-year mark, and Obama recently told New Yorker writer David Remnick that he is “haunted” by the conflict but does not see a way the United States could have prevented the tragedy.

More broadly, Obama may identify Africa as a continent where he intends to be more active, hosting a summit for young African leaders in Washington later this year. The rise of China, especially as it relates to his message that American education is central to the nation’s economic competitiveness in a globalized world, may also be a topic. Climate change, trade and nuclear non-proliferation comprise Obama’s cross-border ambitions as his time in office winds down – issues he has tied directly to U.S. economic and security interests and may do so again Tuesday night.

Among the more time-consuming and embarrassing foreign policy issues Obama has had to confront since his last State of the Union address has been the disclosures revealing the extent of the National Security Agency’s eavesdropping program.

White House officials say the diplomatic relations with some allies have been damaged by the reports. Obama, though, spoke about the issue in a speech earlier this month. While he may reiterate the need for the changes he proposed – as well as the need to maintain the overarching programs – Obama likely spend little time on the subject.

In a State of the Union expected to emphasize the need to create opportunity in nation with a widening gap between rich and poor, Obama may also note the importance of his foreign travel this year in preparing the country’s economy for the future. He will meet with Pope Francis in March at the Vatican – to discuss, among other topics, income inequality.

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