US President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address focused primarily on his economic and social programs in a tone that laid the ground for bipartisanship on many of the issues — but definitely not all. It was noticeable that the speaker of the House, John Boehner, clapped many times, signaling a possibility that confrontation on certain issues would be much milder than in the past two years.
President Obama addressed few foreign-policy issues, announcing the decisions to bring back half of the troops stationed in Afghanistan and partner with the EU on trade and economic issues, and denounced Iran’s nuclear policies in strong terms.
In the fight against al-Qaeda, he sought to bypass criticism about the usage of drones. He said that the US would, “where necessary, through a range of capabilities […] continue to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans." This was an indirect response to recent questions raised by scholars and lawmakers surrounding the legality of using drones to kill American citizens, especially in the case of Anwar Al-Awlaki, a Yemeni American citizen. To reinforce his stance, he promised to “continue to engage with Congress to ensure not only that [US] targeting, detention and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with [US] laws and system of checks and balances” but also that US "efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world.” This was intended to diffuse some of the anger of liberal senators who have expressed deep concern about the issue of using drones.
Referring to the Middle East, he said, “We will stand with citizens as they demand their universal rights, and support stable transitions to democracy.” While he repeated that he will pressure the Syrian regime and support opposition leaders, he also added, “we will stand steadfast with Israel in pursuit of security and a lasting peace.” In this respect, it was noticeable that there was no reference to the Palestinians or Israeli settlements. In this manner, standing “steadfast” with Israel will be a license for it to unilaterally define what constitutes security and lasting peace, as Israel has continued to do through its defiance of international law and relevant UN resolutions, especially since the futile negotiations of the Olso Accords in 1993.
It was very touching when he pointed to some of the families of the recent shooting victims in Colorado and Connecticut. In a particularly poignant moment, the audience stood and applauded when the families were recognized by President Obama. It elicited unprecedented support for President Obama in his inevitable confrontation when new gun legislation is introduced. Referring to Americans whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence, he said, “They deserve a vote.” This invocation of fallen Americans — many of whom were young people — elicited a tremendous ovation, which was all the more touching.
His delivery was impeccable. The description of poverty, particularly in Africa, where too many earn little more than a dollar per day, was touching. The projection of America’s values was well articulated. His commitment to sustainable development at home and abroad, particularly in the countries of the Global South, is encouraging and, when realized, will be a major contribution to its empowerment.
Clovis Maksoud is a former ambassador and permanent observer of the League of Arab States at the United Nations and its chief representative in the United States for more than 10 years.