The State of the Union Could Be Stronger

National security remains on the president’s radar screen. But it is not nearly as important as other issues.

Last night President Obama laid out a blueprint for the Union that focused heavily on domestic issues, and far less so on those relating to national security. His domestic agenda was heavy on specifics—programs for everything, including scientific innovation, pre-school education, the minimum wage, revitalizing cities suffering from urban blight, acceptance of the Simpson-Bowles recommendations on medicare reform, tax reform and immigration reform. His international agenda was far less specific, with three notable exceptions: international trade, Afghanistan and cyber warfare.

The president signaled a willingness to engage both U.S. Pacific partners and the European Community in new trade talks designed to increase commerce across both oceans. That certainly represents a major step forward on the part of a president who heretofore seemed beholden to the unions that helped elect him. Yet even in this regard, the devil will be in the details. Will either the United States or the EU agree to any sort of agreement that incorporates trade in agricultural products? Will the United States and the EU or the Asians agree to the removal of non-tariff barriers? (These tend to have a greater impact on trade flows than tariffs, but are far more subtle and difficult to eliminate.) And what of China? The president said nothing about the need for China to revalue the renminbi, or about some of China’s restrictive trade practices.

With respect to Afghanistan, the president announced, as anticipated, that he would bring home another 34,000 troops by year’s end. And he reiterated that in 2014 “the war will be over.” Mr. Obama did not outline the pace of withdrawal, however. Nor did he indicate how many troops he was prepared to leave in Afghanistan in order to carry out the two missions he described as “training Afghan forces” and “counterterrorism.” Nor did he give any indication of the prospects for a quick completion of a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Afghanistan, without which no troops could remain in that country any more than they could in Iraq once the SOFA with that country was shelved.

Finally, while the president could promise that the war in Afghanistan might be over for the United States in 2014, the same could not be said for Afghanistan itself. It is true that reports emanating from the U.S. and Coalition forces in that country are optimistic about its future. But the military has been issuing optimistic reports about Afghanistan for quite some time, only to be confounded by new insurgent attacks and bombings in different parts of the country. Whether America will have achieved its objectives in Afghanistan, as the president asserts, remains to be seen.

The president announced that on the very day of his address he had issued a new executive order to promote information sharing relating to cybersecurity both within the government and between the government and private sectors. He referred to the incessant hacking and cyber attacks coming from abroad, though he did not mention any country that might be the source of those attacks. His initiative is to be welcomed; the details, and particularly the specifics of proposals he will send to the Congress, remain to be evaluated.

In all other matters relating to national security, the president was suitably vague. Iraq was hardly mentioned. Peace in the Middle East received one sentence. So did Russia. NATO did not merit even that much. The pivot to Asia likewise was overlooked, and China was only mentioned in relation to clean energy and climate change.

The president spoke of defense in terms of personnel benefits, of drone attacks—though only indirectly, and of arms control. He was sharply critical of the North Korean nuclear test that took place a day before his speech. He also said he would do “what is necessary” to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And he committed himself to missile defenses against all potential threats. Yet he did not indicate whether he was committed to what some term “theater” missile defenses as opposed to “national” missile defense, funding for which Democrats traditionally have opposed, though it would be necessary if North Korea makes good on its threat to target North America. 

The president also did not make any reference to the widely discussed administration desire to reduce strategic warheads to 1000 from current levels of about 1700, but the president signaled a desire to reach another accommodation with Russia on this issue, much as he had promised then-President Dmitry Medvedev he would do. Nor did he say anything about the widely reported planned slowdown in nuclear force modernization. Such a slowdown would mean a delay in the program for a new bomber and possibly the Trident submarine replacement as well.

Most significantly, the president said nary a word about his plans for downsizing the military, whether or not the dreaded sequester comes into effect. Further reductions in Army and Marine Corps end strength, the carrier force—there will shortly be only one deployed overseas—and the surface fleet, as well as tactical aviation force cuts, all are expected, and none was hinted at.