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Politics

Obama's Isolationist Turn

The president avoided foreign policy during his State of the Union address.

Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday included little on North Korea or Syria.(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, Pool)()

photo of Elahe Izadi
February 13, 2013

Take a look at two State of the Union addresses, both the first of a president’s second term—President Bush’s 2005 address and President Obama’s address Tuesday night. There's a glaring difference: Obama devoted about half the number of words to foreign policy that Bush did. Obama mentioned Syria, had a line about Iran, spoke about drawing down the American presence in Afghanistan. He pledged greater transparency on the nation’s use of drones and spoke about working through international partners.

On the same day Obama delivered his address, North Korea had just conducted another nuclear test. But Obama offered little tough talk against North Korea. Instead, he simply warned that North Korea “will only achieve security and prosperity by meeting their international obligations” and “provocations of the sort we saw last night will only further isolate them, as we stand by our allies, strengthen our own missile defense, and lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats.”

In his latest State of the Union, Obama mentioned Syria once, saying his administration will “keep the pressure on a Syrian regime that has murdered its own people and support opposition leaders that respect the rights of every Syrian.” That’s consistent with what we’ve seen recently from Obama, who vetoed a plan promoted by the State Department and CIA, and backed by Pentagon leaders, to arm Syrian rebels.

 

In this view, Obama’s pick of Chuck Hagel as Defense secretary makes sense, given that both have been wary of American military intervention.

There’s little political incentive at home to Obama to alter his approach. Americans have grown war-weary, and the president receives high marks on foreign policy. His approval rating on foreign policy is at 53 percent, according to a recent Gallup survey.

When Obama said Tuesday night that the war in Afghanistan will soon be over, the House chamber was filled with members of Congress from both parties standing and applauding. (Notable exceptions: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker John Boehner, and Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham.) Even Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, in the GOP response to the State of the Union, didn’t mention foreign policy or criticize Obama’s approach abroad.

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