Sunday,17 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1279, (21 - 27 January 2016)
Sunday,17 December, 2017
Issue 1279, (21 - 27 January 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Obama’s swan song

Obama’s final State of the Union address was both assertive and defensive, in character with his presidency, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

Al-Ahram Weekly

US President Barack Obama has delivered his last State of the Union address, offering an appraisal of conditions in the US during the previous year, but also using the opportunity to defend his term in office.

The State of the Union address, which is an American tradition as well as a convention in other democratic countries, if by other names, is a historical document in which the political authority reviews its record of achievement and discusses the issues it will address in the coming year and the challenges facing the country.

More generally, it is a moral document that connects the country’s present with its past, its legislative projects with its fundamental legal and constitutional principles, and its current generations with the founding fathers.

Obama’s address this year was unique. On top of his rhetorical skills, which are more powerful than any president since Ronald Reagan, the melancholy associated with the “last address” made it more compelling than the previous ones.
In this speech, Obama felt that he had to clear himself of the charge of being a “weak” president under whose tenure the US lost its international status and prestige and almost lost the race with other world powers: with Russia in international politics and with China in the international economy.

Therefore, the essential message of the address was that the US is stronger than ever. But this is not because its armed forces are abroad, invading and occupying other countries, but rather because, whenever an international problem or crisis occurs, the world turns not to Beijing or Moscow but to Washington. This is the capital to which the world turned for protection against the Ebola epidemic, to forge international alliances against terrorism, to lead the fight against climate change.

Naturally, Obama stood by his record. Among his major achievements was the US’s and, to some extent, the world’s recovery from the global economic and fiscal crisis of 2008. The American rebound was multifaceted. It recovered its industrial and financial strength and it recuperated its export capacities. But perhaps the greatest achievement was in the field of energy, in which the US has once again become an oil-exporting nation which, in turn, led to the huge collapse in prices.

Perhaps Obama was fortunate in that his address came at a time when other world powers do not have cause to be as optimistic. <p>The Russian economy is reeling from the petroleum producers’ crisis, the Chinese economy has entered an unaccustomed period of confusion and the European economy has yet to regain its health. Also, the economies of emerging nations are not as robust as they were some years ago.

In a way, Obama in his address turned the signs of weakness and collapse into landmarks of vigour and strength. The US’s humiliating exit from Iraq and Afghanistan and the trillions of dollars lost through “stupid” wars became virtual victories since the lost resources reverted back into the US economy, funding comprehensive healthcare, supporting student assistance programmes and, on top of all this, giving additional boosts to the US’s greatest talents in research, development and innovation.

In brief, the Obama incumbency, as he views it, was one in which “soft power” and “smart power” were restored to US policy, reinvigorating it and bringing it up to date with the technological and generational developments of the first two decades of the 21st century.

What mattered was not so much reducing the use of fossil fuels or encouraging the development of alternative energy resources but rather rallying all of the US’s scientific and technological might behind the achievement of new and great aims such as eliminating cancer and diabetes, ending diseases such as malaria and AIDS, and fighting epidemics such as Ebola.

Obama did not rule out absolutely recourse to military force. He believes it inevitable in the battle to stamp out the Islamic State (IS) group, for example. However, it should not be used without benefitting from the lessons taught by Vietnam and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Terrorism and guerrilla warfare builds primarily on “patience”, time and constant attrition and, simultaneously, exaggerating their own size by trying to butt heads with major powers and coalitions. Beating terrorists and achieving victory is possible when those countries or coalitions against terrorism succeed in winning the battle of time and patience.

More importantly, it involves keeping the terrorist enemy in its proper perspective as a collection of criminal groups. This is why Obama rejected the description of the war between IS and many countries as World War III. Such exaggerations only play into the terrorist organisation’s hands, he said.

Nevertheless, as valid as this point is in some respects, it overlooks certain facts. It ignores the global nature of the terrorist phenomenon, the similarities between “Islamofascism” and the fascist and Nazi ideologies that gave rise to World War II, and the destruction, murder and displacement of people it has caused across the continents.

The global nature of the enemy here and the savage brutality of its warfare have necessitated a global response. Indeed, the speed with which it can move from one battle theatre to another in order to deliver strikes at “soft” targets from Jakarta to California make the attribute of a “world” war perfectly legitimate.

In any case, this is not Obama’s point of view, in his last year in office at least. Perhaps his remarks in this respect were therefore intended as a political message regarding the limits to which Washington will be willing to go in the forthcoming battles against IS in Mosul in Iraq, Raqqa in Syria and Sirte in Libya.

The State of Union address was not without an important note of introspection in which Obama demonstrated his modesty and, perhaps, also sought to impart some lessons to his successor. There was certainly an element of self-criticism in his admission that his period in office saw the sharpest polarisation between the Republicans and Democrats in a long time.

If he had been an Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt, he said, the result might have been different and the clash between the White House and the Republican-controlled Congress over the budget appropriations bill, which almost brought the US government to a standstill last year, would not have occurred. Nevertheless, if the Obama administration was not as flawless as he would have hoped, he certainly did the best he could and the candidates who are hoping to run for his office should learn from this.

Amazingly, such admissions were made while this administration is still in office, with a full year more to go, during which the world and the US will keep turning. But Obama also knows that with the beginning of the Republican and Democratic primaries, the lights on the White House stage will begin to fade while the lights go on in other stages, drawing the American public’s eye to the presidential election campaigns.

Obama will not have another State of the Union address. But he may not need one. He will have his memoirs, as will those around him, while the wheel of history will turn and pass its judgement either for or against him.


The writer is chairman of the board, CEO, and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

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