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.