Being the President of the USA can’t be an easy job; being a president from an ethnic minority, someone from a community that has a long experience of poverty, violence and discrimination, must be even harder. On one hand in order to succeed in xenophobic US politics you have to be heartless in your dealings with foreigners and show this to everyone in Washington, on the other hand as a human being with the background he has you can’t stop yourself from empathising with all the pain and suffering that your country’s policies are inflicting not only on your own people but on people all around the world.
Last night Obama had the unenviable task of standing up in front of America’s elected representatives and trying to play both roles of being a tough guy and trying to show he has a heart. How seriously we can take his words about foreign policy is not clear given the outward expressions of xenophobia that are part of the life of any US politician (The new US Secretary of State, John Kerry, recently refused to speak French to a French journalist even though he attended boarding school in Switzerland and is known to speak the language well).
In the run up to Obama’s speech, anti-nuclear activists had been hoping that he might live up to the Nobel Peace Prize that he was given in 2009 for saying a few nice words in a speech in Prague. In the end the subject of nuclear weapon reductions got a sentence, and half a sentence recognised that influence comes with a nation fulfilling its obligations. Whether this was a reference to obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, including the obligation to disarm, remains to be seen but no doubt it is enough of a carrot to keep the US anti-nuclear lobby hoping against hope for the remainder of Obama’s mandate that he will deliver something meaningful on nuclear disarmament.
In the section of his speech dedicated to foreign matters he threatened North Korea and Iran with further punishment if they fail to stop their pursuit of launchable nuclear weapons.
The poorest members of the world’s population were given some encouraged by Obama’s commitment to fight against poverty for the next 20 years although the Millennium Development Goals are really due for fulfilment in 2015.
The countries emerging from the Arab Spring such as Egypt were warned to respect the rights for all people, whereas the USA is not without its own human rights violations including the still-open Guantanamo Bay facility with prisoners still held without trial some 12 years after the attacks of September 11.
To great applause, the president announced that the Afghanistan war is coming to an end and that US troops will be coming home soon. Fortunately for the returning troops there was also a commitment to invest in the world-class mental health care that many of them will need if they are not to succumb to suicidal thoughts as thousands of their colleagues have done in the decades of wars that the US has been waging since the end of World War II.
The following are extracts from the State of the Union speech delivered by President Obama which relate to the article above. Bold and underline added.
“Tonight, we stand united in saluting the troops and civilians who sacrifice every day to protect us. Because of them, we can say with confidence that America will complete its mission in Afghanistan and achieve our objective of defeating the core of al-Qaeda.
“Already, we have brought home 33,000 of our brave servicemen and women. This spring, our forces will move into a support role, while Afghan security forces take the lead. Tonight, I can announce that over the next year, another 34,000 American troops will come home from Afghanistan. This drawdown will continue and by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over.
“Beyond 2014, America’s commitment to a unified and sovereign Afghanistan will endure, but the nature of our commitment will change. We’re negotiating an agreement with the Afghan government that focuses on two missions – training and equipping Afghan forces so that the country does not again slip into chaos, and counter-terrorism efforts that allow us to pursue the remnants of al-Qaeda and their affiliates.
“Today, the organisation that attacked us on 9/11 is a shadow of its former self. It’s true, different al-Qaeda affiliates and extremist groups have emerged – from the Arabian Peninsula to Africa. The threat these groups pose is evolving. But to meet this threat, we don’t need to send tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad or occupy other nations. Instead, we’ll need to help countries like Yemen, and Libya, and Somalia provide for their own security, and help allies who take the fight to terrorists, as we have in Mali. And where necessary, through a range of capabilities, we will continue to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans.
“Of course, our challenges don’t end with al-Qaeda. America will continue to lead the effort to prevent the spread of the world’s most dangerous weapons. The regime in North Korea must know they will only achieve security and prosperity by meeting their international obligations. Provocations of the sort we saw last night will only further isolate them, as we stand by our allies, strengthen our own missile defence and lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats.
“Likewise, the leaders of Iran must recognise that now is the time for a diplomatic solution, because a coalition stands united in demanding that they meet their obligations, and we will do what is necessary to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon.
“At the same time, we’ll engage Russia to seek further reductions in our nuclear arsenals, and continue leading the global effort to secure nuclear materials that could fall into the wrong hands – because our ability to influence others depends on our willingness to lead and meet our obligations.
“Now, even as we protect our people, we should remember that today’s world presents not just dangers, not just threats, it presents opportunities. To boost American exports, support American jobs and level the playing field in the growing markets of Asia, we intend to complete negotiations on a Trans-Pacific Partnership. And tonight, I’m announcing that we will launch talks on a comprehensive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union – because trade that is fair and free across the Atlantic supports millions of good-paying American jobs.
“We also know that progress in the most impoverished parts of our world enriches us all – not only because it creates new markets, more stable order in certain regions of the world, but also because it’s the right thing to do. In many places, people live on little more than a dollar a day. So the United States will join with our allies to eradicate such extreme poverty in the next two decades by connecting more people to the global economy; by empowering women; by giving our young and brightest minds new opportunities to serve, and helping communities to feed, and power, and educate themselves; by saving the world’s children from preventable deaths; and by realising the promise of an Aids-free generation, which is within our reach.
“In defence of freedom, we’ll remain the anchor of strong alliances from the Americas to Africa; from Europe to Asia. In the Middle East, we will stand with citizens as they demand their universal rights, and support stable transitions to democracy.
“We know the process will be messy, and we cannot presume to dictate the course of change in countries like Egypt, but we can – and will – insist on respect for the fundamental rights of all people. We’ll keep the pressure on a Syrian regime that has murdered its own people, and support opposition leaders that respect the rights of every Syrian. And we will stand steadfast with Israel in pursuit of security and a lasting peace.
These are the messages I’ll deliver when I travel to the Middle East next month. And all this work depends on the courage and sacrifice of those who serve in dangerous places at great personal risk – our diplomats, our intelligence officers, and the men and women of the United States Armed Forces. As long as I’m commander-in-chief, we will do whatever we must to protect those who serve their country abroad, and we will maintain the best military the world has ever known.
“We will keep faith with our veterans, investing in world-class care, including mental healthcare, for our wounded warriors.”