FPI Bulletin: 5 Things We Hope Obama Says in the State of the Union

January 27, 2014

When President Obama gives his fifth State of the Union address Tuesday evening, he will have a critical opportunity to clarify his vision for advancing our country’s national security and international interests.  Here are five things we hope he will say:

(1) ON IRAN:  “The United States will use diplomacy, non-military pressure and, if necessary, military force to prevent Iran from getting the capability to build a nuclear weapon on short notice.  The interim nuclear deal that Iran has agreed to is just a first step in this direction, and I will work with Congress to make clear to Iran’s leaders the consequences of violating the interim deal or failing to negotiate in good faith toward a comprehensive agreement.”

  • The interim nuclear deal with Iran went into effect on January 20, 2014.  While the six-month deal requires the United States and its partners to begin dismantling international sanctions, it does not require Iran to dismantle a single centrifuge for uranium enrichment, ship abroad a single kilogram of uranium, start dismantling its plutonium-producing heavy water reactor at Arak, or to stop stonewalling international investigations into its nuclear program’s potential military dimensions.  Instead, Iran, a country that remains in noncompliance with its international nuclear obligations, will temporarily only freeze some parts of its uranium enrichment program, reduce its stockpile of 20-percent enriched uranium, and delay work on the Arak heavy water reactor that one former Obama administration official has dubbed a “plutonium bomb factory.”
  • For any final agreement to ensure that Iran would need 6-to-12 months to overtly break out of international inspections and build a nuclear weapon, the Institute for Science and International Studies (ISIS) estimates that Iran would have to irreversibly dismantle at least 80 percent of its 19,000 installed centrifuges, shut down an underground enrichment site built deep within a mountain near the city of Qom, convert its heavy water reactor at Arak into a light water reactor, and agree to an intrusive inspections regime for at least 20 years.  The Wall Street Journal noted that ISIS’s “prescriptions aren't viewed as particularly harsh or hard-line.”  Nonetheless, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that Iran will not dismantle any centrifuges “under any circumstances.”  Zakaria subsequently said Rouhani’s position “strikes me as a train wreck.”
  • While the Obama administration has opposed, so far, bipartisan legislation intended to impose new sanctions if Iran violates it commitments under the interim nuclear deal, 77 former U.S. officials and national security experts wrote in a recent open letter organized by the Foreign Policy Initiative:  “Congress has a chance to play an important role in making clear the consequences of Iranian violations of the interim nuclear deal, in clarifying expectations with respect to future nuclear talks with Tehran, and in creating incentives for Iran to conclude a comprehensive nuclear agreement that protects the national security interests of the United States and its allies.”  The President should clearly state his intent to work with Congress to achieve common goals on Iran.

(2) ON AFGHANISTAN:  “The United States will not abandon the people of Afghanistan, whose security forces are now leading the fight against the Taliban and other militants.  I urge Afghan President Hamid Karzai to sign the agreement that would allow U.S. forces to stay in Afghanistan beyond 2014 and support their Afghan brothers-in-arms.  I will also work with Congress to ensure that the United States and our NATO allies provide the assistance that Afghanistan’s civilian government and security forces will require in the years to come.”

  • In November 2013, a loya jirga, a grand assembly of roughly 2500 Afghan leaders, endorsed a pending bilateral security agreement that creates a legal framework for the presence of U.S. troops after 2014.  However, President Karzai has delayed signing the agreement, causing deep concern among the United States and NATO allies.  In response, some officials in the Obama administration have suggested the United States may move toward the so-called “zero option,” pulling all troops out of Afghanistan at the end of 2014.
  • Despite this political stalemate, the United States, NATO-led coalition, and Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are concluding one of the most successful years of the war.  The ANSF have nearly doubled in size since 2009 and are now leading the fight in Afghanistan.  Afghan troops conducted more than 95 percent of military operations in 2013, and are now suffering the overwhelming majority of casualties.  The Defense Department’s latest report on gains in Afghanistan, however, notes that after 2014 “ANSF sustainability will be at high risk without continued aid from the international community and continued Coalition force assistance including institutional advising.”
  • News reports suggest that General Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., who commands American and NATO-led coalition forces in Afghanistan, is recommending that President Obama keep at least 10,000 U.S. troops in the country after 2014.  As the Los Angeles Times reports, “If Dunford's plan is adopted, about one-sixth of the force—around 1,800 to 2,000 special operations troops—would be reserved for counter-terrorism operations. The rest would support, train and advise Afghan commanders, but would be barred in most cases from participating in combat except for self-defense.”  While independent studies have recommended significantly larger troop commitments, the essential next step will be for the President to secure a continued U.S. role in Afghanistan after 2014 so that future needs may be assessed based upon conditions on the ground.

(3) ON THE ASIA REBALANCE:  “I remain committed to strengthening our economic and security ties with both traditional allies and emerging strategic partners throughout the Asia-Pacific.  While the United States welcomes the opportunities presented by China’s rise, I also urge China’s leaders to embrace cooperation, especially in advancing security, prosperity and human dignity in the region, and reject needless confrontation, especially in maritime and territorial disputes in the East China Sea and South China Sea.”

  • The United States remains the indispensible nation throughout Asia and the Indo-Pacific, where we work with a combination of treaty allies and security partners to maintain peace and stability.  Since late 2011, the Obama administration has pursued what it calls a “rebalance” toward the region that includes a combination of security initiatives, as well as international trade initiatives centered on the ongoing talks for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a regional free-trade agreement that aims to eliminate barriers to trade and investment initially among the United States and 11 other nations.
  • Last year, a group of former U.S. officials and national security experts from the Foreign Policy Initiative and other organizations released a memo to the President suggesting next steps for the Asia Rebalance, such as using the Trans-Pacific Partnership as a springboard to further regionally integrate South Korea, Taiwan and other Asian economic powers, developing additional “mini-lateral” partnerships that enhance cooperation among our Asian allies and partners, and reversing the deep cuts to defense spending that are diminishing our military capabilities in the Indo-Pacific.
  • China has rapidly increased defense spending over the last decade, and is now moving towards a dangerously aggressive posture with regard to its neighbors.  Since November 2013, China has declared a provocative “air defense identification zone” over Japanese-administered territory, announced that it will apply its domestic law over disputed waters in the South China Sea, and forced an American warship to take evasive maneuvers to avoid a collision at sea.  It is essential that President Obama make clear that the United States will stand with its Asian allies and partners in the face of Beijing’s bullying.

(4) ON SYRIA:  “The United States remains committed to working with the Syrian people and our international partners to usher in a post-Assad Syria with a representative government that respects human rights and the rights of religious and sectarian minorities, rejects terrorism in any form, is free of chemical weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, and is at peace with its neighbors.  While we cautiously encourage reconciliation talks in Geneva and work with international partners to limit the threat of Assad’s chemical arsenal, my administration will also support the moderate opposition groups who fight both Assad’s criminal regime and al-Qaeda-linked groups and other extremists in Syria.

  • Syria is suffering a grave humanitarian crisis.  While the United Nations recently decided to stop updating its death toll in Syria, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that over 130,000 Syrians have died in the country’s proxy conflict since March 2011.  USAID reckons that 6.5 million people are internally displaced in Syria, and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that as many as 2.5 million Syrians have sought refuge in neighboring countries, with nearly 900,000 fleeing to Lebanon, 600,000 to Turkey, and another 600,000 to Jordan.
  • After repeated indiscriminate chemical strikes on Syrian civilians and rebels, the Assad regime agreed to U.S. and Russian demands in September 2013 that it sign the Joint Framework for Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons, an ambitious plan for removing Syrian dictatorship’s chemical arsenal by mid-2014.  However, Reuters recently reported that “Western governments are growing impatient with Syria's failure to follow up promptly on a first small shipment of chemical weapons and fear Damascus will miss a deadline to hand over all toxins by mid-2014.”
  • In June 2012, the Action Group for Syria—which includes high-ranking officials from the United States and other world powers, the United Nations and the Arab League, and a host of Middle East nations—issued the Geneva Communiqué outlining a roadmap for Syria to transition from the current government to new political order.  However, the Assad regime—which receives military and economic backing from Iran, the Lebanon-based terrorist group Hezbollah, and the Russian Federation—has shown no willingness to begin such a transition from power.  It is critical that the United States and its regional partners continue to help moderate elements of Syria’s opposition to pressure the Assad regime.

(5) ON DEFENSE, DIPLOMACY & DEVELOPMENT:  “Although I have worked with Congress to reverse some cuts to national defense, diplomacy, and foreign assistance, we still have much work left to do.  We must make hard choices now to ensure our troops and diplomats have the budgets and resources required to fully execute our strategy for defending the nation and advancing our interests and values abroad in the years to come.”

  • A recently-enacted budget deal, which Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) co-authored, restores a total of $31 billion in cut funds to defense spending in fiscal years 2014 and 2015.  However, the Murray-Ryan budget deal does not end the Budget Control Act’s sequestration, which is set to cut over $450 billion from planned defense spending this decade—in addition to roughly $500 billion in pre-sequestration cuts mandated by law over the same period.  Unless the President and Congress reverse this cumulative $1 trillion-dollar reduction to defense, these forced cuts will harm U.S. troop readiness for combat operations, our long-term plans for modernizing and replacing our military’s aging conventional weapons systems and strategic nuclear arsenal, and America’s future strategy for national security.
  • The U.S. Global Leadership Council (USGLC) assesses that, under the most recent budget agreement, the base budget for the State Department and foreign assistance will “grow by 6.1% ($2.5 billion) over FY13 post-sequestration levels” to $44.1 billion in fiscal year 2014.  As the Foreign Policy Initiative has argued, “Foreign aid—along with diplomacy, trade, intelligence, national defense, and other tools of statecraft—plays an indispensible role in furthering America’s strategic, economic, and moral objectives throughout the world.”  If the United States is to remain a global leader in the 21st century, then the President and Congress must work to sustain investments in diplomacy and international development commensurate to America’s interests and values.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
Read More