President Barack Obama challenged the narrative of American decline in his final State of the Union address, and ridiculed the scare-mongering of Republican presidential candidates over ISIL, with their “over-the-top claims that this is World War III.”
But even as Obama implicitly mocked critics who say he is soft and irresolute against enemies abroad, he pointedly ignored a looming crisis that threatened his signature foreign policy achievement: Iran’s detention of 10 American sailors, whose vessels appeared to have accidentally drifted into Iranian waters.
Although officials in Tehran and Washington are working to resolve the standoff, it threatened to derail a hard-won nuclear deal with Iran, just days before foreign sanctions were set to be lifted. As long as the US sailors are in Iran, the nuclear deal is effectively on hold.
Obama’s speech was effectively a rejoinder to the Republican presidential candidates who have spent the last several months painting Obama as a threat to US security. And indeed, an audible grumble of incredulity arose from the Republican side of the congressional chamber as Obama closed out the section of his speech on domestic policy, and shifted to his record on foreign affairs.
“I told you earlier all the talk of America’s economic decline is political hot air,” he said. “Well, so is all the rhetoric you hear about our enemies getting stronger and America getting weaker.”
As guffawing could be heard from Republicans, Obama launched into a series of predictable applause lines. They included: “The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period,” and, “No nation dares to attack us or our allies because they know that’s the path to ruin.”
Obama went on to stoutly challenge a central plank not only of every Republican presidential candidate, but of most mainstream foreign policy analyses: that respect for America has diminished on his watch.
“Surveys show our standing around the world is higher than when I was elected to this office,” he claimed, “and when it comes to every important international issue, people of the world do not look to Beijing or Moscow to lead — they call us.”
It was on the subject of ISIL that Obama was at his most acerbic:
“Masses of fighters on the back of pickup trucks and twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages pose an enormous danger to civilians and must be stopped. But they do not threaten our national existence,” he said. Rather, went on, ISIL is amounts to “killers and fanatics who have to be rooted out, hunted down, and destroyed. [And] that’s exactly what we are doing.”
If anyone doubts America’s determination to hunt down its enemies, Obama said—in what has become a personal mantra—he suggested they “ask Osama bin Laden.”