In years when there’s no presidential election, the State of the Union by default becomes the biggest night in American politics. But instead of feeling like the Super Bowl, the event tends to resemble the Pro Bowl. The players mostly lay off the hard hits, the TV audience has dwindled over the years and, though points are tallied, the standings that matter will be unchanged by the outcome.
The whole thing is too predictable, including the media’s pat reaction afterward. Pundits inevitably call whatever proposals are made small-ball or pie-in-the-sky. Digestion rarely precedes analysis.
For the president’s part, he has little incentive to reveal serious policy prescriptions anyway — the administration might get dinged if those promises aren’t fulfilled by the time the next SOTU rolls around.
In 2014, Obama did nothing to change these dynamics. That’s not to say, however, that this SOTU was exactly like last year’s. And in a speech dominated by domestic issues, there was even a section toward the end that tells us something important about American foreign affairs.
Both speeches, 2013 and 2014, focused primarily on the home front, with the president underscoring his best storyline: improving economic conditions. In the latter half of each speech, there was an all-too-brief discussion about winding down the war in Afghanistan and a call to keep fighting al-Qaeda — which, after more than a dozen years, is beginning to feel like a set piece of the ceremony — followed by a few morsels on what’s going on elsewhere in the world.
This year, however, there was a bit more to chew on.
For one, it’s noteworthy that Obama deployed the word “diplomacy” six times when he addressed Congress this January. During last year’s speech, he didn’t say the word at all, although he did include a close derivative when he called on Iran’s leaders “to recognize that now is the time for a diplomatic solution.”
Nearly a year after those remarks, Iran and the United States, along with its Western allies, were able to hash out a landmark interim deal to try to resolve Iran’s nuclear program, an agreement that took center stage for a moment in this year’s speech.
“And it is American diplomacy,” Obama began, “backed by pressure, that has halted the progress of Iran’s nuclear program and rolled back parts of that program for the very first time in a decade. As we gather here tonight, Iran has begun to eliminate its stockpile of higher levels of enriched uranium. It’s not installing advanced centrifuges. Unprecedented inspections help the world verify every day that Iran is not building a bomb. And with our allies and partners, we’re engaged in negotiations to see if we can peacefully achieve a goal we all share: preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”
Then, the president pointedly added that he would block lawmakers from torpedoing those negotiations. “The sanctions that we put in place helped make this opportunity possible. But let me be clear: If this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it.”
Along with this burst of determination and optimism, however, the president hedged his bets. “These negotiations will be difficult. They may not succeed. We are clear-eyed about Iran’s support for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, which threatens our allies. And we’re clear about the mistrust between our nations, mistrust that cannot be wished away.”
He attempted to reassure those who would doubt the pragmatism of such engagement by offering a successful precedent.
“If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today.”
Hopefully the mullahs won’t be too offended by the knock.
It was a bright spotlight for a topic that got barely a mention last year, and it was the one foreign policy area that got the most wordage (five paragraphs). But other key foreign policy issues also got more attention this time around.
In 2013, Obama uttered a single sentence about the peace process in the Middle East, saying: “And we will stand steadfast with Israel in pursuit of security and a lasting peace.”
This year, however, a few more words came to mind.
“As we speak,” Obama said, “American diplomacy is supporting the Israelis and Palestinians as they engage in the difficult but necessary talks to end the conflict there; to achieve dignity and an independent state for Palestinians, and lasting peace and security for the State of Israel — a Jewish state that knows America will always be at their side.”
Direct negotiations on a two-state solution had been stalled for three years before an announcement last July that Israeli and Palestinian representatives would work again to make headway on this intractable, polarizing conflict.
What will come of all this? If history is our guide, little or nothing. But it still took a Herculean effort to broker even the beginnings of a dialogue. And most of that heavy lifting was done by Obama’s lanky 70-year-old secretary of state, John Kerry, who was seated directly in front of the president with his hands calmly clasped by his knees, wearing a cryptic stillness on his long face.
In fact, any progress on the foreign policy topics that Obama had something new to say about at the podium can be attributed to Kerry, an indefatigable and insuppressible force in his first year as America’s top diplomat.
This autumn, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) dubbed Kerry “a human wrecking ball” — and he didn’t mean that as a compliment to his longtime pal. “They don’t know from one hour to the next where the plane is going,” he said.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who served with Kerry on the Foreign Relations Committee, was somewhat kinder in his accounting, telling The Diplomat after the State of the Union that he’d made a point to “thank [Kerry] for his personal determination and perseverance in bringing the Palestinians and the Israelis to the table and investing so much of his personal energy and capital in moving ahead those negotiations.”
McCain is not alone, though, in suggesting that Kerry’s relentless diplomatic pursuits are all over the map or misguided. Still, others have heaped praise on him for having the single-mindedness — and, yes, ego — to try to budge some of the world’s longest-standing logjams.
One way or another, nobody can say Kerry has been sitting back on his heels after serving as an elected official for three decades. Since being confirmed as secretary of state last January, Kerry has notched more than 325,000 miles and set foot in 39 countries, according to the State Department, a tally that compares favorably to his famously peregrine predecessor, Hillary Clinton, who chalked up 206,799 in her first year on the job and arrived in 44 countries.
Of course, there have been countless comparisons between the two that go beyond the number of frequent-flier miles each racked up.
Clinton was widely applauded for her time leading the State Department, not to mention the grace with which she accepted a position in the cabinet of her former Democratic presidential opponent. She even won muted approval from some unexpected corners, including from former Vice President Dick Cheney.
One criticism, however, is that after four years in the post, Clinton would have a hard time pointing to a landmark accomplishment. (In fact, she might mention the ouster of Col. Muammar Qaddafi from Libya and the opening up of relations between the U.S. and Burma, as well as a singular focus on women’s rights.)
But Kerry seems determined that when his tenure is looked back on, there will be no doubt that it’s one for the history books.
“Clinton saw the post as a stepping stone and played it safe, leaving office with no defining doctrine or big diplomatic feat, while Kerry is approaching it as a capstone, gambling on high-stakes initiatives in hopes of ending his decades-long political career with a diplomatic coup,” Hannah Allam wrote for McClatchy, citing analysts’ opinions.
Kerry has been pushing so hard as secretary of state that The Week openly asked in December whether he might be unwittingly diminishing Clinton’s argument for being president. “[It’s] great news for the beleaguered White House and for Kerry’s own legacy,” wrote Jon Terbush. “Yet in racking up so many prominent successes, Kerry is inadvertently overshadowing the accomplishments of his predecessor, Hillary Clinton, and potentially weakening her case for a 2016 bid.”
Of course, that assumes Kerry will succeed where others have failed. The picture wasn’t so rosy for Kerry in September when he seemed to speak out of both sides of his mouth during congressional testimony about the administration’s proposed bombing campaign in Syria — first saying that there could be troops on the ground under some circumstances and then denying that was ever an option. Even more problematic, he followed this up days later with an off-the-cuff remark about forgoing an attack if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gave up the country’s chemical weapons. That opening was seized on by Russia and ultimately forced Washington to call off plans for a military strike, something Kerry reportedly had been seeking behind the scenes for months.
When all was said and done, the administration managed to polish this colossal blunder so that somehow Kerry ended up looking shiny, as if instead of stumbling into a solution he had shrewdly orchestrated a diplomatic maneuver to wrest from Assad the chemical weapons that the West sought to get rid of for years.
Meanwhile, however, the situation in Syria has only deteriorated, and the casualties from traditional arms — 130,000 by most estimates — far exceed those from chemical weapons. Kerry may have inadvertently squandered the only opportunity he’ll have to stanch the bleeding.
But, true to form, he hasn’t given up on diplomacy, even in the seeming worst of times. Since then, he has spent his energies on Syria organizing a second summit in Switzerland between the Western-backed portion of the opposition and the regime. Those talks, between mortal enemies, in many ways mirror the long, hard slog ahead in negotiations with Iran and between the Israelis and Palestinians.
But in an interview with Politico Magazine’s Susan B. Glasser, Kerry gave a simple rebuttal to critics who say his ambitions are “delusional,” which is how Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post put it. Kerry asked, what else would you have me do?
“If Middle East peace was easy, it would’ve been done a long time ago. I have no illusions. But I would ask Jackson Diehl and anyone else who was critical of our engagement: What is the alternative?”
Kerry went on to pose what can be considered the ultimate existential question in foreign policy: “Do you just sit on your rear end and do nothing? Or do you try to get to the political solution?”
Likewise, when he was peppered with questions in Davos, Switzerland, about whether the United States was disengaging from the world — a reflection of his boss’s clearly stated preference for “nation building at home” rather than abroad — he shot back in no uncertain terms that “nothing could be further from the truth.”
“You cannot find another country — not one country — that is as proactively engaged, that is partnering with so many Middle Eastern countries as constructively as we are on so many high-stake fronts,” Kerry said in a forceful speech at the World Economic Forum.
During Kerry’s run for the presidency in 2004, he was panned for his predilection for po-faced prolixity and muddled messaging. Kerry can somehow tell everyone what they want to hear without making anyone feel confident — an undiplomatic trick he’s undoubtedly employed at times as secretary of state. Yet there have been other moments when he seems like he just might be the right guy to accomplish the unthinkable.
A few days after the State of the Union address, CNN — noting Kerry’s man-on-fire pace — asked the secretary if he was once again considering higher office.
“This is my last stop,” he replied.
No, Kerry has other goals now. And if he could land even one of the moon shots he’s launched, his boss could give one hell of a SOTU speech next year.
About the Author
Luke Jerod Kummer is the congressional correspondent for The Washington Diplomat.