A Foreign Policy Vacuum

In 2012, Dr. Lamont Colucci was approached by U.S. News and World Report to write a weekly column on foreign policy and national security. This is under the aegis of World Report – Insights, perspectives, and commentary on foreign affairs. View the article on

President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address was the lightest on issues concerning foreign policy and national security in years, even by his standards of disdain for the subjects. It reminds the electorate of the abject and complete scorn the president and his administration has for international affairs and foreign policy. The brief laundry list has already been repeated so rather than revisit this list, it is far more important to discuss what was not said and what was not achieved.

First and foremost, there was not a single notion of how this administration sees American strategy – let alone how to achieve it. Americans are accused of being too focused on the present, thinking in terms of the year or the week rather than the decade or the century. This is a president that has no trajectory for the hour or the day. What will his legacy be in foreign affairs? What stamp has he made? There has not been a single success and no planning for how to keep America preeminent. If the Clinton years were a foreign policy disaster, the Obama years have been a foreign policy vacuum. Which is worse? This is a tough choice, but at least a disaster can be reversed.

Second, is the inability to direct and command. This is directly related to the first issue: Since there is no strategy, there is nowhere to lead and no allies willing to follow. We have traded a trajectory of success in Iraq and Afghanistan for a meltdown in both, while declaring a hollow victory. We allowed the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad to murder tens of thousands, let a virulent brand of Islamic extremism metastasize and put the entire Arab world into tumult.

Ronald Reagan, in his successful 1980 bid for the presidency, famously asked the American people: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” If we take the same slogan and apply it to international affairs, the world would respond with a resounding “no.” Enemies of the United States or its interests – Russia, China, Syria, Iran and North Korea – have been emboldened. Allies have been blindsided, brushed aside or, in one case, ceased to exist: Yemen, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Great Britain, France, Japan, South Korea and Israel. Al-Qaida has new strength, the Islamic State group holds large areas of Iraq and Syria, China exerts greater influence in Asia, and the Russians make continuous advances and gains in the Ukraine. We must remind ourselves that these issues and places are interrelated: Chaos in Yemen changes the dynamic in the Persian Gulf, just as the chaos in Syria changes the dynamic in the Levant.

Third, Iran deserves special attention as this administration’s policy of appeasement under the cover of a diplomatic arrangement is now under greater fire from allies abroad and the U.S. Congress. The president’s policy of a deal at any price could literally be the tipping point to set the entire region on fire. The administration’s pursuit of such a dangerous policy calls into question all thoughts that this administration has concern for anything beyond its own failed term.

Fourth, perhaps most unbelievably, the Department of Defense was largely absent from the State of the Union address. The United States continues to have more worldwide commitments than ever before; the world is worse off now on the security front than it was four years ago; the American military is asked to do more with less. The defense budget accounts for just under 20 percent of the federal budget, but it is providing 50 percent of the sequestration cuts. Further, the paper military that continues to show some strength in combat arms is often a partial illusion as cuts in training and maintenances are hollowing out aspects of the military similar to the Jimmy Carter years. This is the most dangerous long-term policy that could affect generations.

The tired rhetoric of the administration is finally wearing thin: They can’t bring themselves to use terms like Islamic extremism, enemy combatant or even terrorism properly. They are justifying negotiating with the Taliban because they are suddenly an insurgency, but somehow the Islamic State group is not? The real question is not if the Taliban or the Islamic State group are terrorists or insurgents. They are both. Nature abhors a vacuum, international relations won’t suffer it, and the American electorate won’t forgive it.