Obama Touts Progress in Iran, Afghanistan

But he had little to say about Iraq or Syria.

The entrance to Camp Justice at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
National Journal
Sara Sorcher
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Sara Sorcher
Jan. 28, 2014, 5:30 p.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama used his State of the Uni­on bully pul­pit to sell the re­cent deal world powers struck with Ir­an as a for­eign policy break­through and a chance to avoid a fu­ture con­flict, prom­ised the end of this coun­try’s longest war in Afgh­anistan, and urged Con­gress to close the Guantanamo Bay pris­on — again.

Even as Is­rael and some U.S. law­makers cri­ti­cize the in­ter­im deal with Ir­an as not be­ing strict enough, Obama de­fen­ded the agree­ment that rolled back parts of Tehran’s nuc­le­ar pro­gram “for the very first time in a dec­ade.”

The pres­id­ent ramped up the pres­sure on mem­bers of Con­gress — in­clud­ing Demo­crats — who are seek­ing more sanc­tions against Ir­an as ne­go­ti­ations con­tin­ue. Prom­ising to veto those meas­ures if they make it to his desk now, Obama said, “for the sake of our na­tion­al se­cur­ity, we must give dip­lomacy a chance to suc­ceed.” If that fails, all op­tions, pre­sum­ably in­clud­ing mil­it­ary ac­tion, are still on table. “I will be the first to call for more sanc­tions,” Obama said, “and stand ready to ex­er­cise all op­tions to make sure Ir­an does not build a nuc­le­ar weapon.” This pub­lic prom­ise may sway some of his crit­ics.

Obama also touted his role as war-en­der-in-chief. When he took of­fice, nearly 180,000 Amer­ic­ans were serving in Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan; the war in Ir­aq is, of course, over, and with the form­al end of com­bat op­er­a­tions in Afgh­anistan this year, “Amer­ica’s longest war will fi­nally be over.” Obama is con­sid­er­ing leav­ing a small force of U.S. troops for nar­row counter-ter­ror­ism and train­ing mis­sions — if such a deal can be reached with Afgh­anistan. Out­go­ing pres­id­ent Ham­id Kar­zai has so far re­fused to sign the se­cur­ity agree­ment both coun­tries already ne­go­ti­ated.

Obama stressed the need to close the Guantanamo Bay pris­on — a goal which has eluded him since the be­gin­ning of his pres­id­ency. “With the Afghan war end­ing, this needs to be the year Con­gress lifts the re­main­ing re­stric­tions on de­tain­ee trans­fers and we close the pris­on at Guantanamo Bay,” Obama said, “be­cause we counter ter­ror­ism not just through in­tel­li­gence and mil­it­ary ac­tion, but by re­main­ing true to our Con­sti­tu­tion­al ideals, and set­ting an ex­ample for the rest of the world.” It ac­tu­ally could hap­pen. The tide may be turn­ing in his fa­vor; the de­fense au­thor­iz­a­tion bill Obama signed late last year re­laxed re­stric­tions on trans­fer­ring de­tain­ees to the cus­tody of for­eign coun­tries.

Obama didn’t talk much about Ir­aq, where the news that al-Qaida-linked mil­it­ants took over cit­ies hard won by U.S. troops dur­ing the long war broke the hearts of Mar­ines who fought there. And he glossed over the status of the Syr­i­an con­flict, where the bloody civil war still rages and peace talks ap­pear dead­locked. Obama did say the U.S. will “sup­port the op­pos­i­tion that re­jects the agenda of ter­ror­ist net­works” and stressed the role of Amer­ic­an dip­lomacy in con­vin­cing Syr­ia to elim­in­ate its stocks of chem­ic­al weapons— after the U.S. threatened to use mil­it­ary force.

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