President Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday night did not dwell extensively on foreign policy. Obama offered no new proposals and seemed to talk around some of the toughest challenges. But he did discuss the United States' role in the world, particularly in the Middle East. Here are the big quotes from his speech, what they mean and what they left out.
(1) Pushing hard for the nuclear deal with Iran
And it is American diplomacy, backed by pressure, that has halted the progress of Iran's nuclear program -- and rolled back parts of that program -- for the very first time in a decade. ... We're engaged in negotiations to see if we can peacefully achieve a goal we all share: preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
... If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today.
The Iran nuclear deal was by far Obama's biggest foreign policy point in the speech – the only one to which he dedicated real space. He did not actually announce anything new – he has said before that a nuclear deal has risks but is preferable to war, that he'll veto new sanctions because they would kill the deal, that "all options" (read: bombing) remain on the table and that, for Iran, this could be a major first step toward happier relations with the world.
The big take-away is that by dedicating five full paragraphs to it while stepping around most other foreign policy issues, Obama continues to set the Iran nuclear deal as a major foreign policy priority. He cares a lot about seeing this one through. He sees this, he says, as an opportunity to "resolve one of the leading security challenges of our time without the risks of war."
(2) We're pulling out of Afghanistan
Today, all our troops are out of Iraq. More than 60,000 of our troops have already come home from Afghanistan. With Afghan forces now in the lead for their own security, our troops have moved to a support role. Together with our allies, we will complete our mission there by the end of this year, and America's longest war will finally be over.
This was the predominant foreign policy theme of Obama's 2013 State of the Union and he repeated it this year, albeit less extensively and with less fanfare. It's no secret that the war in Afghanistan has been going poorly since the George W. Bush administration first diverted its attention to Iraq in 2003, that Obama's 2009 "surge" failed to turn the tide, and that the U.S. goal of at least pressuring the Taliban to accept some compromises in a peace deal looks increasingly unlikely. In political terms, the war's unpopularity is bipartisan, and pretty much everyone is ready for Obama's drawdown.
(3) We're still going to fight terrorists, though
If the Afghan government signs a security agreement that we have negotiated, a small force of Americans could remain in Afghanistan with NATO allies to carry out two narrow missions: training and assisting Afghan forces and counterterrorism operations to pursue any remnants of al-Qaida. For while our relationship with Afghanistan will change, one thing will not: our resolve that terrorists do not launch attacks against our country.
... While we've put al-Qaida's core leadership on a path to defeat, the threat has evolved as al-Qaida affiliates and other extremists take root in different parts of the world. In Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Mali, we have to keep working with partners to disrupt and disable these networks.
Obama is here alluding to ongoing negotiations with the Afghan government about retaining a U.S. troop presence. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is not being terribly cooperative, and it looks possible that the deal could fall through. But you can bet that Obama will work to find a way to keep the drones flying and the Special Forces raids running.
(4) Sunny thinking on Syria
In Syria, we'll support the opposition that rejects the agenda of terrorist networks. ... American diplomacy, backed by the threat of force, is why Syria's chemical weapons are being eliminated. And we will continue to work with the international community to usher in the future the Syrian people deserve -- a future free of dictatorship, terror and fear.
Obama poured some pretty weak tea on the subject of Syria, which is understandable given his view that the United States is basically powerless to significantly affect outcomes there.
He pointed, accurately, to the successful U.S. role in eliminating Syria's arsenal of chemical weapons, which the Damascus government had used against civilians before the U.S.- and Russian-led deal was reached. But he seemed to overstate the U.S. role in supporting the moderate opposition (read: non-extremist rebels), which has turned increasingly toward the better-armed and -trained Islamist groups in part because Western backing has been so tepid. Given how little the United States has done, there's a certain dark irony to Obama calling for a "future free of dictatorship, terror and fear" for Syrians.
(5) A nod to nuclear disarmament
American diplomacy has rallied more than 50 countries to prevent nuclear materials from falling into the wrong hands, and allowed us to reduce our own reliance on Cold War stockpiles.
Reducing the number of nuclear warheads in the world, as well as safely securing the ones that are left, has been a big issue for Obama since he was taken under the wing of Republican Sen. Dick Lugar, a long-time proponent of nuclear security issues. This has not been a super-sexy issue for the Obama administration, it doesn't get a lot of attention, and this line did not attract much applause. But its inclusion, especially in such a brief foreign policy section, was a reminder that Obama sees this as a legacy issue, one near to his heart.
(6) The Arab Spring and pivot to Asia fall by the wayside
From Tunisia to Burma, we're supporting those who are willing to do the hard work of building democracy. ... And we will continue to focus on the Asia-Pacific, where we support our allies, shape a future of greater security and prosperity and extend a hand to those devastated by disaster, as we did in the Philippines.
Two major Obama foreign policy initiatives, and major foreign policy topics of past State of the Union addresses, have been "pivoting to Asia" and encouraging the Arab Spring. Neither of those initiatives had very good years in 2013, so it's unsurprising that both were mentioned only glancingly in this speech.
Most revealingly, Obama did not mention Egypt at all, even to express a general desire for democratic progress there. That reflects a disastrous year in U.S.-Egyptian relations: The Obama administration tried and failed to halt a July military coup and, much later, punished Cairo with a reduction in military aid.
All in all, it's no wonder we didn't hear much about foreign policy last night.